Violence flared sporadically during the campaign, including shootings and rock-throwing during rallies and political caravans.

President Hugo Chavez’s crusade to transform Venezuela into a socialist state was put to the stiffest electoral test of his nearly 14 years in power.

Folk music poured from loudspeakers in places, mixed with a recording of Chavez’s voice saying “those who love the homeland come with me.”

Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles, united the opposition for what has become a contest between two camps that distrust each other so deeply that there are concerns whether a close election result will be respected.

If Chavez wins a new six-year term, he gets a free hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, further limit dissent and continue to befriend rivals of the United States.

If Capriles wins, a radical foreign policy shift can be expected along with an eventual loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment.

Many Venezuelans were nervous about what might happen if the disputes erupt over the election’s announced outcome.

During Chavez’s final rally Thursday in Caracas, he shouted to the crowd - “We’re going to give the bourgeoisie a beating!”

Violence flared sporadically during the campaign, including shootings and rock-throwing during rallies and political caravans. Two Capriles supporters were shot to death in the western state of Barinas last weekend.

Troops were dispatched across Venezuela to guard thousands of voting centres on Sunday.

Chavez, who says he has emerged successfully from long treatment for cancer, held an impromptu news conference on Saturday night, and when asked about the possibility of disputes over the vote, he said he expected both sides to accept the result.

“It’s a mature, democratic country where the institutions work, where we have one of the best electoral systems in the world,” Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace.

But he also said, he hoped no one would try to use the vote to play a “destabilizing game.” If they do, he said, “We’ll be alert to neutralize them.”

Some recent polls gave Chavez a lead of about 10 percentage points, while others put the two candidates roughly even.

Chavez won the last presidential vote in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote.

A former army paratroop commander first elected in 1999, Chavez has presided over an oil boom and has spent billions of dollars on government social programs ranging from cash benefits for single mothers to free education.

But he has suffered declining support due to one of the world’s highest murder rates, 18 percent inflation, a deteriorating electrical grid and a bloated government accused of endemic corruption and mismanagement.

“I want to tell President Chavez, I want to tell him his cycle is over,” Capriles said at his final campaign rally on Thursday.

Capriles says Chavez has stirred up hatred, hobbled the economy by expropriating private businesses and squandered oil wealth. He criticized Chavez’s preferential deals supplying oil to allies, including one that lets Cuba pay with the services of Cuban doctors.

“We aren’t going to finance the political model that exists in Cuba,” Capriles said in a TV interview last week. “But we aren’t going to break off relations with Cuba.”

Political analyst Ricardo Sucre said he expected the election to show “two halves, more or less even.” Regardless of the result, he said, Venezuelans are likely to remain deeply divided by politics for years to come.

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