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Chavez tries to cement hold

Venezuelan voters go to the polls today to decide a highly polarized presidential race that could have profound consequences for the region.

President Hugo Chavez is running for a third term with strong opposition from Manuel Rosales, a popular provincial governor.

A victory for Chavez would make him the longest-serving head of state in the hemisphere after Fidel Castro and further cement his identity as the leader of leftist politics in Latin America.

How popular is Chavez these days?

Most opinion polls give Chavez a lead of 15 to 20 points.

He has support at every level of society, but it is concentrated in the poorer two-thirds of the electorate. Official figures indicate that almost four out of 10 Venezuelans live in poverty. However, a windfall from high oil prices has created a class of new-rich chavistas, known as the Boli-bourgeoisie, after Chavez's so-called Bolivarian revolution.

What is Chavez's platform?

Chavez has promised a new phase of his socialist revolution. He says his first eight years in power were merely a transition. His brand of "21st century socialism" stresses "people power" over institutions and the replacement of capitalism with noncapitalist elements such as cooperatives and barter trade.

Who is Rosales?

Manuel Rosales is the governor of the western state of Zulia. He was born into a large family in a rural area south of Lake Maracaibo. A former local councilor and state legislator, he was twice mayor of Maracaibo before being elected governor twice.

He split with the Social Democratic Party in the early 1990s and now runs his own centrist party called A New Time.

Who is backing his campaign?

Rosales has a broad coalition, from right-wing political parties to former leftist guerrillas. He is also backed by some business groups and the opposition media.

What does Rosales offer?

His flagship plan for distributing the country's oil income to the poor is an innovative debit card system through which poor families and the unemployed would directly receive their share of one-fifth of oil profits. He would seek to encourage private-sector investment in a bid to boost jobs and end the confrontation with the United States.

How free and fair has the campaign been?

The opposition has been free to organize, although Rosales' campaign events have often been attacked by the chavistas. The opposition's main problem has been the vast disparity of resources.

The Chavez campaign has almost unlimited state funds and other resources, including a large state-run media. The electoral authority has placed no restrictions on his five- to six-hour Sunday TV and radio program Hello President, nor on his use of presidential broadcasts, called cadenas, which allow him to interrupt regular programming simultaneously on all radio and TV stations.

What is at stake here for the United States?

Chavez is an avowed enemy of the Bush administration who openly seeks to diminish U.S. influence around the world. He is an ally of Cuba, Iran, Syria and other countries the White House sees as hostile to U.S. interests.

In Latin America, Chavez has sought to block U.S.-backed free-trade initiatives, and he opposes the U.S.-assisted counterinsurgency war in Colombia and the embargo on Cuba.

Venezuela is the fourth-biggest supplier of oil to the United States, and Chavez has threatened to cut off supplies if Washington does anything he interprets as interference in Venezuela's internal affairs.

Has the United States said anything about the election?

Although the United States would clearly be relieved to see Chavez out of office, it has avoided openly taking sides in this election.

How strong is Chavez politically?

This election seems likely to cement his power. The opposition currently has no representatives in Congress. Chavez supporters also dominate the electoral tribunal and the Supreme Court. He has purged the military of dissent while also appointing loyal military officers in some ministries.

Assuming Chavez wins, what should we expect from him during the next six years?

Chavez will press ahead with his revolution as fast as circumstances allow. The political model involves further concentration of power in his hands and the replacement of institutions and political parties with "popular power."

Economically, expect to see state control increase, with the withering of the domestic private sector, but encouragement for foreign investors, especially from state-run corporations belonging to allied countries such as Iran, Brazil and China.

David Adams is the Times Latin America correspondent. Phil Gunson is a Times freelance correspondent based in Caracas.