Final rallies before Venezuela vote
Red-shirted backers of Hugo Chavez's chosen heir have transformed downtown Caracas into a raucous festival on the final day of campaigning for the weekend presidential election, flooding the streets in the hundreds of thousands to dance, drink beer and set off ear-splitting fireworks.
Interim president Nicolas Maduro, a burly former bus driver who served as Mr Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, is favoured to win Sunday's vote. But a poll said his advantage had narrowed as challenger Henrique Capriles hammered away at government deficiencies in fighting crime, chronic food shortages, double-digit inflation and worsening power outages. Mr Capriles held his own huge rallies in the western states of Apure and Lara.
The crowds at Mr Maduro's rallies overflowed into surrounding streets and turned the area into a party. One group played drums as women dressed as donkeys performed a traditional Venezuelan dance known as the "buriquita". Couples danced to romantic salsa music blaring from a truck at one street corner while blocks away screaming teenagers cheered a hip-hop group singing Chavista songs from a stage.
When Mr Maduro finally reached the stage after a truck inched him through the sea of people, he was joined by Argentina football star Diego Maradona, who signed footballs and kicked them into the screaming crowd. Mr Maduro had two live parakeets perched on his shoulders - chirping birds have become a symbol of his campaign ever since he claimed that Mr Chavez appeared to him as a bird that flew around his head.
Mr Chavez chose Mr Maduro as his political successor in a December television address shortly before leaving for Cuba for cancer surgery. He was never seen in public again and died on March 5, five months after winning a new six-year term by a wide margin against Mr Capriles. Mr Maduro has capitalised on the outpouring of grief for the former president, who galvanised poor Venezuelans with generous social programmes to provide housing, cheap food, medical care and other services.
At the rally on Thursday, he pulled out a copy of Mr Chavez's plan for his unfinished six-year term and said those were his goals. "I'm not standing here because I'm ambitious," Mr Maduro said. "I've never aspired to anything. My only aspiration has been to see my country stand on its feet. I can't remember a day in my life when I didn't work for Chavez."
For many Chavez supporters, it's enough that their late leader told them to vote for Mr Maduro. "It's an order given to us for a man who honoured the poor, who gave this life," Efren Perez, an inspector with the state-run electrical company, said as he watched the buriquita dancers. "Why are we voting for Maduro? Because it's a legacy, it's a mission, it's an order."
Venezuela has one of the world's highest homicide rates and strict currency controls have strangled production and brought chronic food shortages. Lack of investment and inefficient management has hurt the electrical grid, causing power outages that last hours.
A poll by local firm Datanalisis said nearly 55% of respondents favoured Mr Maduro's candidacy, compared to 45% who said they would vote for Mr Capriles. It is a comfortable lead but smaller than the 14-point advantage that Mr Maduro held in a Datanalisis poll just after the Mr Chavez's death.
Mr Capriles told supporters at a rally that he was the best choice for reactivating the economy. If you want a future we have to change the government, give yourself the opportunity of a different project," he said.