By I-Hsien Sherwood ( | First Posted: Oct 06, 2012 12:34 PM EDT

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a rally. (Photo : Reuters)

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez faces a competitive challenger in Sunday's election for the first time in his 13-year presidency.

The more moderate Henrique Capriles Radonski has positioned the campaign as a referendum on Chavez's socialist policies, which Capriles charges have resulted in a corrupt and bloated government, the world's highest inflation rate, and a murder rate more than twice that of violence-wracked Mexico.

Polls are divided on their predictions for the outcome of the election, but several show a large block of undecided voters who may break for Capriles. For his part, the challenger has strived to make himself more palatable to Venezuelans used to the heavy-handed tactics and soaring rhetoric of Chavez's United Socialist Party, vowing to continue popular social programs aimed at alleviating poverty and opening free health clinics in his native state of Miranda, where he is the governor.

"Judge for yourself who's going to bring change and who's become sick with power," Capriles has said in campaign speeches.

Chavez claims Capriles is a bourgeoisie capitalist who wants to institute neo-liberal economic policies. He says he will reaffirm his socialist agenda if reelected.

"We've laid the foundations of 21st century socialism and today we launch, well, the second cycle," said Chavez at a rally. "We'll launch the second socialist cycle, from 2013 to 2019, with much more strength."

The outcome of the election may have far-reaching consequences for Latin American politics. With Castro quiet, Chavez is the most outspoken of the bombastic, left-wing autocrats heading socialist regimes in the region, and if he stumbles, the others may, as well.

Argentina's President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who governs in the Chavez style, has seen her approval ratings plummet from 64 percent last year to 24 percent in the wake of 25 percent inflation, a rate actually better than Venezuela's rate of 28 percent, the highest in the world.

Ecuador's Rafael Correa may also have a tough election ahead in February of 2013, as voters in leftist countries become envious of the economic strides of more moderate Brazil.

That country's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, himself no neo-liberal or great supporter of Western monetary policy, has had great success with sweeping social programs coupled with a respect for private businesses and property rights and a willingness to engage in economic discourse with capitalist Western nations.

The outcome of Venezuela's election on Sunday is still far from certain, as is the future of socialism on the continent.

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