Venezuela votes to pick Chavez successor

Venezuelans voted Sunday to pick late leader Hugo Chavez's successor, with his handpicked political heir favored to win, but the opposition candidate cried foul, warning of plans to alter the results.

After a brief and bitter campaign, voters in the divided oil-rich nation waited for electoral authorities to announce the victor in the race between acting President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Maduro is widely expected to win the right to complete the new six-year term Chavez won in October, promising to continue oil-funded policies that cut poverty from 50 to 29 percent with popular health, education and food programs.

But Capriles, the loser in October polls, warned on Twitter that there was an "intention to change the choice expressed by the people."

The opposition leader said there were attempts to let people vote after polling stations closed. Earlier, he accused the government of pressuring civil servants to vote for Maduro.

Both candidates had pledged during the campaign to recognize the vote results.

Maduro inherited Chavez's formidable electoral machinery, which helped the late leader win successive elections in 14 years, with government employees often seen handing campaign pamphlets and attending rallies in groups.

Vice President Jorge Arreaza condemned Capriles, warning him to be "very careful."

Capriles hopes discontent over the nation's soaring murder rate, chronic food shortages, high inflation and regular power outages will give him an upset victory.

Before dying last month, Chavez endorsed Maduro as his successor. Maduro has since cast himself as the late president's "son" and sought to elevate his mentor as a saint-like figure, calling him "Christ the redeemer of the poor."

The 50-year-old former foreign minister pumped his fist as a crowd cheered him on after he stepped out of a black SUV to vote at a Caracas polling station, accompanied by his wife, former attorney general Cilia Flores.

Before placing his electronic vote's receipt in a box, he looked up at the sky and held his hands in prayer.

"When I voted, I voted for his memory," said Maduro, who was mocked by the opposition during the campaign for saying Chavez's spirit visited him in the form of a bird. "I gave my vote to this little bird that is flying freely. I voted for him."

Maduro, who was accused of exploiting Chavez's death for political gain, awaited the election results in the military barracks where the former army paratrooper was laid to rest.

Capriles voted in an upper-class neighborhood, kissing a statue of the Virgin Mary after voting and urging Venezuelans to report any election abuses.

"What we want is for this country to have a true democracy, a democracy for all, a country where we can all exercise our rights without the possibility of any reprisal," the 40-year-old state governor said.

From Venezuela's Amazon region to the Caribbean coast and the capital's hillside slums, voters cast ballots to decide the future of a nation sitting on the world's biggest proven oil reserves.

At the school where Chavez used to vote in the poor January 23 neighborhood, voters hailed his legacy.

"The commitment to the revolution is very strong," said Denis Oropeza, 33, a museum employee voting there as a truck played a recording of Chavez asking Venezuelans to vote for Maduro before cancer took his life.

Later, two of Chavez's daughters voted at the school and were applauded by the crowd. People chanted "Chavez lives! The struggle goes on!"

Across town, in a neighborhood known as a Capriles bastion, voters said they were fed up with violence that left 16,000 people dead last year and a weak economy that has people struggling to find butter and milk in grocery stores.

"I want change because the situation is not good. There's no security, the country is divided in two," said Pietro Bellacicco, 75, a retired agricultural worker.

Polling stations began to close at 2230 GMT but people will be allowed to vote as long as lines exist.

Chavez named Maduro -- a former bus driver and union activist who rose to foreign minister and vice president -- as his political heir in December before undergoing a final round of cancer surgery. He died on March 5 aged 58.

Maduro and Capriles engaged in an acrimonious campaign marked by insults, government allegations of assassination plots against the acting leader and the virtual beatification of Chavez.

Maduro called his rival a "little bourgeois" while Capriles derided the tall, broad-shouldered acting president as a "bull-chicken."

Capriles avoided criticizing Chavez, however, pledging to maintain his social "missions." He lost to Chavez by 11 points in the October 7 presidential election -- the opposition's best ever showing against him.

Opinion polls gave Maduro a lead of 10-20 points, though the last survey conducted by Datanalisis last week gave him a 9.7-point edge. The winner will be sworn in on Friday.