Fabiola Sanchez, Associated Press Writer
November 29, 2006
MARACAIBO, Venezuela --Venezuela's leading opposition candidate called Wednesday for President Hugo Chavez's government to play clean in Sunday's presidential election amid signs of a widening political divide in the country.
The race has highlighted how increasingly polarized Venezuela has become, largely along class lines, with the wealthier supporting Rosales, the poor backing Chavez and the middle class fractured.
Shoppers are packing supermarkets to stock up on supplies, fearful that Sunday's outcome could prompt street protests and violence.
"It has to be a clean game ... If that happens, all of us will be calm," Manuel Rosales, governor of oil-rich Zulia state, said to The Associated Press shortly before closing his campaign with a huge rally in Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city.
Both Rosales and Chavez have warned their supporters to be alert for fraud and to be ready to defend the vote.
Chavez, speaking at his own rally in southeastern Trujillo state, warned that the U.S. government was backing Rosales and would try to undermine the election.
"If the imperialists and its lackeys try to destabilize Venezuela with riots, they will regret it for the rest of their lives. I warn them," he said.
The exchange of warnings came as a top lawmaker from Chavez's ruling party, Iris Varela, called on government supporters to take over private TV stations that report Rosales in the lead ahead of official results.
Varela said the opposition-aligned media may use rigged exit polls to show that Rosales is ahead in order to mislead the public.
"When they start to do that, we must take over the TV channels ... a peaceful takeover as we have always done at the doors of these TV stations," she told the state TV broadcaster in an interview, singling out two Caracas stations in particular, Globovision and RCTV -- both highly critical of the government.
Varela denied she was emitting a threat, saying, "we are only going to demand they say the truth, that's it."
In Maracaibo, hundreds of thousands dancing to the pulse of reggaeton music packed a dozen blocks along a major road in support of Rosales, who united Venezuela's opposition movement for the first time since a crushing defeat in a 2004 recall referendum against Chavez.
Rosales has accused Chavez of seeking to exploit divisions in order to consolidate power, and warns the Venezuelan leader's "socialist revolution" aims to copy Cuban President Fidel Castro's one-man communist system.
"This is not just any election. We're not deciding on a president," Rosales told the crowd. "We're going to choose between two paths -- one side that believes in democracy ... and the other that wants to establish in Venezuela a Castro-Cuban communist system that strips the people of freedom."
Rosales supporters cite polls showing Sunday's race will be tight, although an independent AP-Ipsos survey and other recent polls found Chavez with a large lead.
Monitors from the European Union, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States will be on hand to oversee the voting.