Voters in Venezuela are getting ready for presidential elections billed as the toughest yet for incumbent Hugo Chavez. Youthful challenger Henrique Capriles has cut the president's lead by half in the past four months.
The election has been described as the most difficult electoral challenge for Chavez in his 14 years in office.
Although the left-wing populist president remains the favorite in most polls, Capriles appears to have narrowed the gap considerably.
The 40-year-old former governor of the state of Miranda has united the normally fragmented opposition, having embarked on a roving campaign that has seen him visiting some 160 different locations.
Business-friendly Capriles, who himself claims to be on the center-left politically, accuses Chavez of polarizing the country as well as failing to fight crime and end food and housing shortages.
"President Chavez, I thank you for all you have done well… and for all you have done badly; history will judge you," Capriles told his final rally in Lara state on Thursday.
Chavez, meanwhile, says that Capriles represents a threat from the right that would undo a socialist agenda that has found favor with many of the country's poor.
'Breakfast well, then vote'
In his final speech to supporters, Chavez urged voters to wake up before dawn to cast their votes to ensure an "indisputable triumph" long before the close of polling.
"A good coffee, a chocolate, a breakfast and everybody voting for the future... vote for Chavez!" the president urged his "Chavista" followers in the capital, Caracas.
In the past 13 months, the 58-year-old leader has undergone treatment for cancer, although precise details of his illness and self-proclaimed complete recovery remain a mystery.
Both sides have voiced confidence in a new electronic ballot system and have said they will accept the election board's ruling. However, Capriles does accuse Chavez of misusing public funds to promote his campaign, while also putting pressure on government employees to swell the numbers of people attending his rallies.
Chavez easily brushed aside his previous rival in December 2006, clinching almost 63 percent of the vote.
rc/av (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)