CUMANÁ, Venezuela -- Hugo Chávez, a polarizing president who has led Venezuela for nearly 14 years, has many advantages over the opposition candidate trying to unseat him on Sunday, from the airwaves he controls to the government largess he doles out with abandon. But one especially potent weapon in Mr. Chávez's arsenal is what might be called the fear factor.
Many Venezuelans who are eager to send Mr. Chávez packing, fed up with the country's lackluster economy and rampant crime, are nonetheless anxious about casting their ballot out of fear that voting against the president can mean being fired from a government job, losing a government-built home or being cut off from social welfare benefits.
"I work for the government and it scares me," said Luisa Arismendi, 33, a schoolteacher who cheered on a recent morning as Mr. Chávez's challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, drove by, waving from the back of a pickup truck. Until this year, she always voted for Mr. Chávez and she hesitated before giving her name, worried about what would happen if her supervisors found out she was switching sides. "If Chávez wins," she said, "I could be fired."
Although polls diverge widely, with some predicting a victory for Mr. Chávez and others showing a race that is too close to call, there is wide agreement that Mr. Chávez is vulnerable as never before. Handicapping the election is complicated by the angst felt by many Venezuelans that a simple vote for the opposition could bring retaliation.
In advance of Sunday's balloting, the government introduced a new electronic voting system that many Venezuelans fear might be used by the government to track who voted against the president. Electoral officials and opposition leaders defend the integrity of the system but there is significant distrust and a big part of Mr. Capriles's campaign has been to reassure voters that their votes will remain secret.
"The government has sown this fear," Mr. Capriles said in an interview, adding that the reluctance of people to speak their mind skewed opinion polls in favor of Mr. Chávez. "If we can overcome the fear, I believe that we can win this election by a million votes."
The fear has deep roots. Venezuelans bitterly recall how the names of millions of voters were made public after they signed a petition for an unsuccessful 2004 recall referendum to force Mr. Chávez out of office. Many government workers whose names were on the list lost their jobs.
Mr. Chavez runs a well-oiled patronage system, a Tammany Hall-like operation but on a national scale. Government workers are frequently required to attend pro-Chávez rallies, and they come under other pressures.
"They tell me that I have to vote for Chávez," said Diodimar Salazar, 37, who works at a government-run day care center in a rural area southeast of Cumaná. "They always threaten you that you will get fired."
Ms. Salazar said that her pro-Chávez co-workers insisted that the government would know how she voted. But experience has taught her otherwise. She simply casts her vote for the opposition and then tells her co-workers that she voted for Mr. Chávez.
"I'm not going to take the risk," said Fabiana Osteicoechea, 22, a law student in Caracas who said she would vote for Mr. Chávez even though she is an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Capriles. She said she was certain that Mr. Chávez would win and was afraid that the government career she hopes to have as a prosecutor could be blocked before it begins if she votes the wrong way.
"After the election, he's going to have more power than now, lots more, and I think he will have a way of knowing who voted for whom," she said. "I want to get a job with the government so, obviously, I have to vote for Chávez."
Venezuela is a major oil supplier to the United States and the election gives voters a stark choice, with Mr. Chávez, 58, whose health has been an issue after undergoing treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer, pushing the country farther down the road toward his version of socialism.
Mr. Capriles, 40, who has served as legislator, mayor and governor, said he would follow the Brazilian model of business-friendly policies to expand the economy, coupled with social programs to help the poor. He has hammered away at government inefficiencies and mismanagement, and focused on runaway crime, high on the agenda of every Venezuelan.
Mr. Capriles's bid is an uphill one. Mr. Chávez uses the entire state apparatus, including television and radio stations and government workers, to promote his campaign, and he exerts outsize influence over the courts and the electoral council. He has hugely bolstered government spending this year on social programs to attract voters. And he retains the loyalty of legions of adoring followers.
In the last presidential election, in 2006, Mr. Chávez won with more than 62 percent of the vote. He received 7.3 million votes then and says he will get 10 million this year.
At campaign events, he urges supporters to defend his revolution and to look beyond the many unresolved problems.
"On Oct. 7, what's at stake is not whether or not the lights went out or if there was or wasn't running water, or if they haven't given me a house, or that I don't have a job yet or that I'm angry at I-don't-know-who," Mr. Chávez said at a rally last week in Maturín, a city southeast of Cumaná. "What's at stake is the life of the country, the future of the youth, of the children, of all of Venezuela."
With discontent rising, though, Mr. Capriles has made significant inroads in Mr. Chávez's strongholds, especially poor urban slums.
"He fooled all of us but we are waking up," Lisbet Márquez, 46, a Cumaná high school teacher, said of the president. She used to support him but now feels the country has stagnated.
Mr. Chávez got more than 70 percent of the vote in 2006 in the working-class Buena Vista neighborhood where Ms. Márquez lives, yet today many homes display Capriles posters.
"My family was 100 percent Chavista," she said, indicating that more than two dozen people in her extended family were changing their vote from Mr. Chávez to Mr. Capriles.
In Cumaná, the capital of the northeastern state of Sucre, the roads and highways are in terrible shape, the sewage systems are lacking or inadequate, power failures are routine, thousands of local jobs were lost when Mr. Chávez banned a common form of commercial fishing several years ago, and the teachers at many schools refuse to hold classes because the governor, a Chávez stalwart, has not paid their full wages.
But it has been harder for Mr. Capriles to dent the strong support for Mr. Chávez in rural areas.
There, analysts say, poverty rates are often higher and the role of government in people's lives can be even more intense than in cities; the government is often the biggest employer and residents may be even more likely to rely on welfare programs.
"Before, the people in the countryside weren't taken into account, we were forgotten," said Mercedes Rodríguez, 35, who lives with her mother and her two children in a mud-wall house in a hamlet called La Florida, southeast of Cumaná.
Ms. Rodríguez, who has a poster of Mr. Chávez on her veranda, is a member of his political party. In the morning she works for the state government in a job that combines the functions of social worker, helping local residents get government services, and political organizer, getting those same residents to marches and out to vote in support of Mr. Chávez.
"There's no one else like him," she said of Mr. Chávez, predicting that he would win again handily.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.