CARACAS, Venezuela — Weakened from battling cancer and visibly bloated, President Hugo Chavez is fighting for his political life in Sunday’s presidential election, as he faces a charismatic challenger who has energized a once-disunited opposition in a way none of the populist leader’s foes ever has.
At stake is the president’s experiment to remake Venezuela, a 14-year transformation characterized by the expropriation of private companies, diplomatic initiatives to counter U.S. influence and a near-mystical bond with the country’s poor masses.
Two established pollsters show Chavez, 58, with a substantial advantage, underscoring the loyalty of millions he has commanded since sweeping into power in 1998. But two others have Chavez and Henrique Capriles, 40, a lawyer and former governor who has never lost an election, in a virtual dead heat.
“This is seriously competitive,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Americas program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “I would say it’s the first time since Chavez was elected that the accumulated learning experience of the opposition and the accumulated problems of the country have brought the race to a place where it’s almost too close to call.”
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