Venezuela's larger-than-life president is up against the closest thing to a real challenge he's faced in his 13-year term.
And while most polls still put him in the lead, a run of bad news stories seems to be eroding Chavez's support, even among his base in the working class and poor.
This election is not just a key moment for Venezuelans. Over the last decade Chavez has forged alliances with leftist leaders across Latin America, supporting the anti-imperialist (read: anti-American) "pink revolution" that has spread across the region. He has also been a vocal supporter of Iran's nuclear programme, and has been accused of supporting the Farc rebel group in neighbouring Colombia. This vote will be closely watched in Washington and across Latin America.
From plotter to president
Chavez came to power in 1999, winning an election just six years after being jailed for a failed coup attempt. He's endeared himself to Venezuela's poor with his humble roots, folksy mannerisms and bombastic criticism of the rich and the US. He's also put billions into housing, schools and food programmes that benefit the nation's least fortunate.
But his increasingly autocratic actions – extending the presidential term of office, packing the judiciary, legislature and media with supporters, ordering judges to imprison enemies without due process – along with his seeming inability to get traction on Venezuela's deep economic and social problems, have given impetus to young opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
The power of one
The scion of a wealthy family and governor one of of the country's most populous states, Capriles, 40, was selected in an unprecedented nationwide primary in which some 3m votes were cast. That allowed the opposition to unite for the first time behind a single candidate.
A business-friendly moderate, Capriles has been hammering at the discrepancies between Chavez's populist promises and the reality of a country with rampant violent crime, widespread food shortages, out-of-control inflation and crumbling infrastructure. Pointing to the power outages that routinely plague Venezuela, Capriles recently taunted: "(Chavez) wants to take his revolution to the world, but who takes care of the electricity cuts?"
Chavez has also taken a hit from a series of dramatic disasters. A major bridge collapse, a deadly prison riot and a huge explosion at Venezuela's largest oil refinery have called into question the government's ability to manage the country.
Meanwhile, Chavez's enthusiastic support for the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has alienated some of the million or so Venezuelans of Syrian descent, who have taken to the streets to challenge both regimes.
Capriles' youthful vigour and energy are also reminders of the president's health problems. Chavez has been through several rounds of surgery and radiation treatment for cancer, and while he declared himself cured in July, there is widespread speculation about his ability to continue in office if re-elected.
Not dead yet
Still, "El Comandante" is odds-on favourite to win. He has a clear funding advantage and isn't shy about using his unlimited presidential access to the airwaves – not to mention his control of the national purse strings – to promote his image as the saviour of the poor and protector of the nation from the perfidious plots of "the empire" (that is, the US).
Chavez has been slamming Capriles as just another lackey for the rich landowners who would hand the country's oil and other resources to the Americans (and the country has a long history of rulers who have done just that). He has said that if he lost the election, it would start a "civil war". His recent decision to pull Venezuela out of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has raised concerns.
As in the past, Chavez loyalists and the opposition are planning on rigorous monitoring of the polling to prevent vote rigging. Chavez has said he will leave office if he loses the election, but partisans on either side won't give up easily. Unrest is likely, however the vote is called.
Update: On Saturday, at least two supporters of Henrique Capriles were shot in a confrontation with Chavez loyalists. The shootings took place in Barinas, Chavez's home state, where his support is strong. Witnesses reported that the gunshots came from a van belonging to Venezuela's state-owned oil company. The country's justice minister, Tareck El Aissami, called the shooting "an isolated incident". The violence adds to an already tense atmosphere and feeds concerns that a Chavez loss at the polls could trigger serious unrest. [1/10/12]
Read more: What would post-Chavez Venezuela look like? The Global Post tackles the key questions.
Sources: Future Challenges, Avaaz, The Star (Malaysia), Miami Herald, Irish Times, Huffington Post, Reuters, Global Post