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Chavez loyalists mobilize on eve of election

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Venezuela's acting President Nicolas Maduro paid tribute to Hugo Chavez on Saturday on the eve of a vote to elect the late leader's successor, ignoring opposition complaints that campaign rules were violated.

Though the campaign officially ended late Thursday, Maduro has regularly appeared on state-run television, calling on voters to flock to the polls Sunday and vowing to carry on his mentor's socialist revolution.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said he was facing a government that was "abusing power, abusing state resources" while the National Electoral Council authorities "covers its eyes."

Maduro presided over a televised ceremony to celebrate the 11th anniversary of Chavez's return to power after a two-day coup in 2002 and the creation of a "Bolivarian militia" made up of civilians.

From the old barracks where Chavez was laid to rest, Maduro, top officials and the uniformed militia chanted "Chavez lives! The struggle goes on!"

"The bourgeoisie and imperialism should make no mistake. The people will know how to defend with the constitution in hand, with the rebellious and volcanic force that it has, the decision that our sovereign people will take (Sunday)," Maduro said.

"You know that Comandante Chavez gave me a difficult job and I accepted it like a son. I feel at peace," he said. "I will be loyal to him until the last moment."

Maduro said that if he loses, he would go into an opposition "of love" and "fight the opposition's hate if they try to privatize everything." But if he wins, he added, "I will be the president of love, union, truth and Christ."

After a campaign marked by name-calling and government allegations of destabilization plots, the acting leader claimed that a "dirty war" was being conducted against him by the "right-wing."

The government said this week that a group of Colombian paramilitaries was detained in Venezuela and that explosives were seized in a plot to destabilize the nation.

Throughout the campaign, Maduro accused his political rivals of plotting to kill him, commit acts of sabotage against the electrical grid and refuse to recognize the election results.

The opposition countered that the accusations were "completely false" and urged the government to let voters reflect on the election "in peace."

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas called for a "tuitazo," or a massive Twitter campaign to send messages about Chavez. He also wrote a series of Tweets criticizing the opposition.

Maduro already visited the tomb on Friday with Argentine football icon Diego Maradona, a close friend of Chavez who urged Venezuelans to vote for the acting president on Sunday.

The election follows a lightning campaign dominated by Chavez's legacy, with the late leader casting a solemn shadow over the election, with his image and memory being often linked to religious images and rhetoric.

The leftist leader, who died on March 5, slashed poverty to 30 percent through oil-funded social projects that brought health, education and food programs to once neglected poor areas.

But his successor will inherit South America's biggest murder rate, with 16,000 killed last year, and a weak economy with high inflation, soaring debt and chronic shortages of basic foods. That despite the fact Venezuela, with just 29 million people, sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves.

Chavez named Maduro -- a 50-year-old former bus driver who rose to foreign minister and vice president -- as his successor before undergoing his last round of cancer surgery in December.

"We must vote for Maduro, like the Comandante asked us to do. There is no other alternative in order to continue the revolution," said Romano Silva, 52, a wood craftsman wearing a fake Maduro-like mustache in the city historic Plaza Bolivar.

Maduro is favored to complete the deceased leader's six-year term, casting himself as his mentor's "son" and "apostle."

Opinion polls have given him leads of up to 20 percent, though the most recent showed he had a 9.7-point advantage.

Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, has promised to maintain heavy social spending while bringing a more business-friendly economic model inspired by Brazil's center-left.

The opposition candidate lost to Chavez in last October's presidential election by 11 points.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130413/chavez-loyalists-mobilize-eve-election