CARACAS -- Venezuelans braved long lines to vote on Sunday, as the South American country holds a vital election.
Hugo Chávez, the president who wants to turn Venezuela into a socialist state, is running against Henrique Capriles, a social democrat who has proved to be the toughest challenger of Chávez's tenure.
The last polls published before this election were released a week ago. Polls disagree over who the winner could be, with some surveys showing that Capriles could win by a small margin of 2-5 percentage points, and end Chávez's spell of 13-years in office. But other polls published in late September gave Chávez a 10 to 15 point lead over Capriles.
Still, the Venezuelan government seems to be taking no chances in this election, which has been described by President Chávez as a "battle" to maintain Venezuela's "independence," from foreign powers.
In several neighborhoods in the capital city of Caracas, Chávez campaigners awoke local residents at 3am with loud fireworks and military-style trumpet music meant to remind residents of their voting responsibilities.
But in this tight election, such tactics may have not been necessary, as people who supported both candidates made their way to voting stations in large numbers early in the morning.
"Our liberty and our democracy is at stake here. This election is very important for us," said Lesbia Gonzalez, a retired nutritionist, who began to line up at her voting station in Caracas' Los Dos Caminos neighborhood at 5:30am. Gonzalez had to wait 3.5 hours to cast her ballot. She said that she supported Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate who has promised to increase private investment in Venezuela and run the country as a market economy with strong social programs, like Brazil.
Just a few blocks away from Los Dos Caminos, a group of Chávez supporters gathered under a red tent in the entrance to a slum called La Lucha. They were distributing water and food to voters, and making sure that the President's supporters made it out to voting stations on Sunday.
"What is at stake here are health programs, education programs, all those achievements of the government," said Chávez supporter Sira Muñoz.
Like many Chávez supporters, Muñoz believes that generous social programs known here as "missions," would be cut if the opposition wins on Sunday, even though Capriles has said he would keep Chávez's social programs.
"Everything that [Venezuela's poor] have achieved in the past 14 years is at stake, and we are going to use our vote to not let that go," added Iris Hernandez another Chávez supporter volunteering at the red tent.
The election, which would mark a radical shift in how the country is run, has been carried out peacefully so far. Although voting stations opened up to six hours late in some areas of the country.
Long voting lines and inefficiencies in districts that traditionally vote for the opposition, also led some voters to accuse the government of trying to dissuade people from casting their ballots. Many aired their complaints through Twitter.
"ELECTORAL TAN!!! I've been in line for six hours, but there will be no 'tortoise operation' that can stop me," wrote Twitter user Eliana Lopez Alvarez, a journalist who ended up waiting 8 hours under the sun.
At the entrance to each voting station Venezuelan voters are required to confirm their identity on a machine that reads their thumbprint. According to several testimonies aired by local TV station Globovision, the lack of these thumb printing machines or their malfunctioning was causing many of the delays at voting stations.
Yet, in some parts of Caracas, voting seemed to run smoothly. Rosita Quintero, 55, volunteered at a voting center lodged in the Martinez Cedeño School in Caracas.
"There are some 2,700 people registered here, and by noon half of [those registered] had voted," Quintero told ABC/Univision.
At the nearby Cristo Rey School however, hundreds of people formed a massive queue, waiting for a chance to vote.
"This is the most exciting queue I've made in my life," said 26-year-old Paolo Prato, who said that she wanted a new government run by Capriles to tackle problems like high crime rates and unemployment.
Prato had to wait four hours to cast her ballot at the voting center, where more than half of registered voters had cast their ballots by 3pm.
"People are very happy here," she said. "I'd do this line two, three, four thousand times more."