CARACAS, Venezuela – THE CHOICE
Just over a month after Hugo Chavez succumbed to cancer, Venezuelans vote Sunday to replace the firebrand socialist president who built a near-monopoly of power during 14 years in office. The candidates:
— Nicolas Maduro, 50, burly former bus driver and union leader; longtime Chavez foreign minister. Fortified by petrodollars, well-oiled party and state apparatus. Anointed by Chavez. Close to Cuba. Campaigned on devotion to his mentor, continuation of "socialist revolution." Favored.
— Henrique Capriles, 40, governor of Venezuela's most populous state. Grandson of Holocaust survivor. Heads opposition battered by government intimidation. Lost to Chavez in October by nearly 11-point margin. Took a more confrontational line against Maduro. Backed by private sector, but vows not to dismantle Chavez anti-poverty programs. Underdog.
South American nation of 28 million people with the world's largest proven petroleum reserves.
Millions of Venezuelans have been lifted out of poverty under Chavez's rule, and income distribution has become less unequal, though soaring inflation, food shortages, crumbling infrastructure, worsening power outages and rampant crime have become campaign issues.
With annual inflation topping 20 percent, the government has imposed price controls on basic goods. But lower production and currency controls have caused shortages of foods including sugar, coffee, cornmeal, chicken and beef.
Factories have rolled back production and oil production has slipped.
Nearly 19 million registered voters. Automated touch-screen voting machines.
Polling stations open at 6 a.m. (6:30 a.m. EDT; 1030 GMT) and close 12 hours later, unless people are still waiting in lines. Officials say results expected about three hours after polls close.