Venezuela’s election enters its crucial last month

Venezuela’s election enters its crucial last month

With one month to go before electing a president, both sides of Venezuela’s dismembered public sphere are pulling out all the stops. The polls find both candidates at the top of their games.

There are two sets of opinion polls on this race. The first group puts Hugo Chávez comfortably ahead, with leads in the low double digits and an unusually large number of undecided voters. These polls show that the gap is closing — but not quickly enough for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles to change the outcome. The other group of polls shows the race in either a dead heat, or with Capriles leading; there are respected pollsters in both groups.

Chávez’s campaign has been an odd one. He has limited his public appearances to once every two or three days, undoubtedly due to his continued fight against cancer. The 14-year-long incumbent has instead opted for TV appearances which are forcibly broadcast by every TV and radio station in the country for free. He has also used public buildings for political advertisements, and he has even unveiled a bizarre ad campaign aimed at young, urban voters in which his face is superimposed onto the body of a twenty-something.

Capriles, on the other hand, has embarked on a barnstorming tour across the country’s hinterland. Visiting towns long neglected by the government, he seems to have struck a chord with voters who may still harbor some sympathies for Chávez, but who are weary of the government’s inability to solve day-to-day problems, such as soaring crime and crumbling infrastructure.

Capriles’ hyper-kinetic campaign style has helped him overcome a serious deficit in media time. Because of Chávez’s relative absence from the news, journalists have been left with little choice but to cover Capriles’ rallies. Of course, much of the coverage — particularly in state-run media — has been negative. Still, the public knows he is out there, crisscrossing the country like a man possessed.

Both candidates have brought to the forefront qualities that make each of them appealing in their own way.

Capriles’ unassuming nature has made him a quasi-rock star. He doesn’t have firm positions on anything other than reconciliation, efficiency, and problem-solving. This means that all the different factions of the opposition have a slightly different idea of him, one they tailor to their own ideological pre-conceptions: He’s a blank slate upon which a heterogeneous opposition projects its values and aspirations.

Message discipline has been the key factor here — Capriles has barely made any mistakes. One slip and he could be pegged as either a fascist anti-communist troglodyte or a wishy-washy appeaser of Chavez. He has avoided these pitfalls and stayed masterfully above the fray.

Chávez, on the other hand, is a once-in-a-generation political opportunist. No one else in the country’s public sphere can compete with his ability to turn a potential problem into an asset. Take the recent fires at the Amuay Refinery in western Venezuela. Chavez’s government owns and manages the refinery, but the president was quick to deflect focus from the fire itself onto an "opposition" that celebrates the tragedy. The president also said that while the government is trying to put out the fire, the bourgeoisie wants to "put out the fire in the (hearts of the) patriots." He was quick to say that the worst accident in the oil industry’s history was the opposition-led oil strike of 2002, reminding people that an uncompromising, radical opposition shut down the country’s economy.

Every chance he has, he shifts the focus away from his shortcomings.

Chávez said that he wished he could be closer to the fire itself, helping to put it out. Instead of assuming the blame for the tragedy, he put himself in the place of the victims and the heroes working to turn off the blaze. These outstanding abilities help him remain competitive.

Next month’s election will find two energetic political actors at the top of their game. Whatever the outcome, their camps are right: It will be an election for the ages.