Venezuela's bitter campaign ends with big rallies
Caracas: Venezuela's acting President Nicolas Maduro tearfully vowed to complete Hugo Chavez's socialist revolution on Thursday while rival Henrique Capriles promised change at emotional rallies to close their bitter campaign.
Maduro was joined on stage by the late leader's friend, Argentine football icon Diego Maradona, who signed and kicked balls to tens of thousands of people clad in red in Caracas ahead of Sunday's election.
Parakeets were released and Maduro put one on each shoulder in a nod to his assertion last week that Chavez's spirit had visited him in the form of a "little bird" -- a story the opposition seized on to mock the late leader's chosen successor.
The final rallies closed a brief campaign that was marked by name-calling, allegations of assassination plots and the transformation of Chavez into a religious-like figure in this politically polarised nation.
Before Maduro's speech, the crowd sang along as a large screen showed a video of Chavez singing the national anthem under the rain during his last campaign rally in October.
Surrounded by his Cabinet, Maduro, 50, pledged to fulfill his mentor's oil-funded socialist revolution, which brought popular education, health and food programs to the poor.
"We, his sons and daughters, will collectively guarantee that this is the case. We swear that the revolution will continue," he said, calling Chavez "Christ the redeemer of the poor," one month after he lost his battle with cancer.
"For the love of the poor, I aspire one day to join Hugo Chavez again, my father the redeemer," Maduro said, struggling to stifle tears. "Long live Chavez! Long live the Bolivarian revolution!"
Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist who rose to foreign minister and vice president under Chavez, has enjoyed leads of 10 to 20 percentage points in opinion polls.
A survey by pollsters Datanalisis, published on Thursday by Credit Suisse bank, gave him a 9.7-point lead. The poll was conducted between April 01-05.
Datanalisis president Luis Vicente Leon wrote on Twitter that Maduro's campaign was "weaker than at the beginning" but that it was not weak enough for Capriles to catch up.
"It was a very quick, mega-campaign but the people want to continue the revolution," said Feliz Oropeza, a 55-year-old Housing Ministry employee who donned replicas of Chavez's signature on each cheek and wore a red beret like the comandante.
While the late leader reduced poverty, he left behind the highest murder rate in South America, with 16,000 homicides last year, and a slew of economic problems, from high inflation to shortages of basic foods despite Venezuela's oil wealth.
Wearing a shirt and matching baseball cap in Venezuela's yellow, blue and red colours, Capriles voiced confidence he would win, six months after losing to Chavez by 11 points in the last Presidential Election.
"Make no mistake, next Sunday is time to open a new cycle and change this situation," he told a huge rally in the western city of Barquisimeto after
The 40-year-old Miranda state governor, who has accused Maduro of unfairly using state funds and television to dominate the campaign, said the government "abuses, intimidates and threatens”.
"This is the time to change Venezuela," said 50-year-old mechanic Jorge Fonseca, as Capriles supporters held signs reading "God's timing is perfect" and "This is the moment."
Chavez was a constant presence in the race, with the last day of the campaign coming on the 11th anniversary of the April 11, 2002 coup against the former colonel that lasted just 47 hours.
After 14 years in power, Chavez designated Maduro as his political heir before heading to a final round of cancer surgery in December.
Since then, Maduro has adopted his mentor's bombastic rhetoric while calling himself the "son" and "apostle" of Chavez.
The campaign quickly turned nasty, with Maduro deriding Capriles as a "little bourgeois" while the opposition leader dubbed his broad-shouldered rival a "bull-chicken”.
Maduro has claimed that the opposition wants to sabotage the nation's power grid to cause a blackout before the election. He has also alleged that former US officials and the Salvadoran right-wing plotted to kill him.
On Thursday, he said a group of Colombian paramilitaries were detained in Venezuela early Thursday and that explosives were seized, adding that authorities were "dismantling a plan of violence by the right”.