A united, well-organized opposition led by a youthful state governor gave President Hugo Chavez the race of his life Sunday as Venezuelans turned out in huge numbers for a presidential election on the country's socialist direction.
Tensions rose in the bitterly divided petroleum-exporting nation while an undetermined number of voting stations remained open after the official 6 p.m. closing time, with not a single result announced more than three hours later.
Chavez, who has ruled for nearly 14 years, called on Venezuelans to await results patiently, speaking briefly by phone during a news conference held by his campaign chief. That message was echoed by challenger Henrique Capriles, who wrote on Twitter, "We know what happened and we should wait." He also called Sunday "a grand, historic day."
Electoral officials gave no indication of when they might begin releasing first returns. Publishing exit polls and unofficial vote counts is illegal in Venezuela.
The electoral council's president, Tibisay Lucena, said any stations where voters had not cast ballots would remain open. Meanwhile, bands of red-shirted pro-Chavez motorcyclists, honking horns, roved central Caracas ensuring that such stations stayed open.
While not accusing the government of intentionally delaying results, Capriles did complain earlier that most voting stations lacked lines and the government should get on with the vote-counting.
Just as polls closed, one of hundreds of young red-shirted Chavistas who took to the streets on motorcycles said they were ready to begin celebrating.
"Let them accept defeat," Kleiver Gutierrez said of the opposition.
One pro-Chavez voter, private bodyguard Carlos Julio Silva, said that whatever his faults, Chavez deserves to win for spreading the nation's oil wealth to the poor with free medical care, public housing and other government largess.