Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez faces his first serious challenger after 14 years as head of state. If he wins, voters will have affirmed his socialist agenda – Chavez uses the huge profits from oil experts here to benefit the poor. NBC's Kerry Sanders reports.
Updated at 11:06 p.m. ET: CARACAS - With 90 percent of the votes in, President Hugo Chavez was declared the winner in the Venezuela presidential election Sunday night. Chavez received 54 percent of the vote to serve an unprecedented third term after he changed the country's constitution, NBC News reported.
Jubilant Chavez supporters set off fireworks as the results were announced. Election officials said opposition challenger Henrique Capriles won 45 percent of the vote.
Earlier in the day, Chavez said he would accept the results of the country's election, whether he wins or loses.
"We'll respect the results, whatever they are," he told reporters after casting his vote in Caracas. He also said voters were turning out in massive numbers in Sunday's election.
The vote was widely viewed as the toughest electoral challenge of Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency. Chavez was greeted at the polling center by American actor Danny Glover and Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu.
The vote was an all-or-nothing contest between two camps that deeply distrust each other and question whether the other side will respect the results of the election. The stakes couldn't be higher.
With a Chavez victory, he will have a free hand to dominate Venezuela for six more years on top of the 14 years he has already been in office, letting him push for an even bigger state role in the economy and cement his legacy.
Enric Marti / AP
People line up to vote in the presidential election in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. President Hugo Chavez is running against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
If Capriles had won, it would have likely meant an abrupt shift in foreign policy, an eventual loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment -- though a tense transition would likely have followed until the inauguration in January.
As voting got under way, Chavez tweeted: "Bless you Oct. 7th! We will write another page in history in the coming hours!!"
His challenger also took to social media. "Today we decide the future of our Venezuela, let's all go to vote thinking that we can and that we will be better. Vote for you," Capriles tweeted.
Ramon Espinosa / AP
People wait to vote in the presidential election at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. President Hugo Chavez is running against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
Some Venezuelans were nervous about what might happen if disputes erupted over the election.
"Nobody trusts the other people, especially when it's their political rivals," said Maria Villareal, a teacher and Capriles supporter who stocked up on groceries Saturday. "We're in a divided country, and I think Chavez is the one responsible."
She and other critics of the president say Chavez has inflamed divisions by labeling his opponents "fascists," "Yankees" and "neo-Nazis." During Chavez's final rally Thursday in Caracas, he shouted to the crowd: "We're going to give the bourgeoisie a beating!"
David Hernandez, a Chavez supporter, agreed the mood was tense, but he blamed the opposition.
The life of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez from his rise as a lieutenant colonel after his failed coup attempt in 1992.
"Chavez is going to win and Capriles will have to accept his defeat," Hernandez said, standing next to his parked motorcycle on a downtown street. "If Capriles doesn't accept his defeat, there could be problems."
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.
Close in the polls
Capriles, a centrist state governor, edged toward the still popular Chavez in final polls thanks to a vigorous campaign that united the opposition.
Jorge Silva / Reuters
Venezuelan presidential honor guards line up before casting their vote during the presidential elections in Caracas on Sunday.
Chavez has used record oil revenue to support ideological allies around the world, while preaching a fiercely anti-U.S. line, so the election will be watched eagerly from the United States to Belarus and Iran.
Across the poor neighborhoods where Chavez, a flamboyant former soldier, draws his most fervent following, loyalists prepared to blow bugles and trumpets in a predawn wake-up call for voters.
Opposition sympathizers banged pots and pans in a protest against Chavez on Saturday night, creating a racket in the upscale neighborhoods of eastern Caracas. In the city center, which is more pro-government, the noise was drowned out by supporters playing his campaign music and shouting his name.
"I ask political actors from the left, right and center to prepare emotionally to accept tomorrow's results. It's not going to be the end of the world for anyone," Chavez said at a last-minute news conference at the presidential palace.
The 58-year-old president staged a remarkable comeback from cancer this year. But he could not match the energy of past campaigns - or the pace set by his 40-year-old basketball-loving opponent.
Most well-known pollsters put Chavez in front. But two had Capriles just ahead, and his numbers crept up in others.
There was a risk of violence if the result is contested.
There were no formal international observers, although Venezuela invited a delegation of the UNASUR group of South American nations to "accompany" the vote.
Local groups planned to monitor and both sides say they trusted the electronic, fingerprint vote system. The opposition said it would have witnesses at all of the 13,810 polling centers from tiny Amazon villages to tough Caracas slums.
Chavez accuses the opposition of plotting violence and planning to "reject the people's triumph" when he wins, but says that effort will be defeated. Some opposition activists fear he could refuse to step down if the result goes against him.
Victory for Capriles would have removed the most vocal critic of the United States in Latin America, and could have led to new deals for oil companies in an OPEC nation that pumps about 3 million barrels a day and boasts the world's biggest crude reserves.
Capriles wants to copy Brazil's model of respect for private enterprise with strong social welfare programs if he is elected -- but he would have faced enormous challenges from day one.
For a start, he would not have taken office until January 2013, meaning Chavez loyalists might throw obstacles in the way of the transition.
He also would have to develop a plan to tackle entrenched high inflation, price distortions and an over-valued currency, while surely butting heads with the National Assembly, judiciary and state oil company PDVSA -- all dominated by Chavez loyalists.
Another big task would be to figure out the real level of state finances. Last month, a Reuters investigation found that half of public investment went into a secretive off-budget fund controlled by Chavez and had no oversight by Congress.
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The president has denounced his foes as traitors and told voters they plan to cancel his signature social "missions," which range from subsidized food stores to programs that build houses and pay cash stipends to poor women with children.
Tens of thousands of new homes have been handed over this year, often to tearful Chavez supporters at televised events.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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