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In Venezuela, Capriles looks for an upset

In Venezuela, Capriles looks for an upset

The days preceding a presidential election are usually full of interesting story lines. In chaotic Venezuela, however, the narrative seems more jumbled than one would expect.

Let’s recap: We have a 14-year incumbent who is favored to win but is barely campaigning. We have a strong challenger closing the gap, but not quite there yet. We have opinion polls giving wildly differing predictions, and a public sphere where unimportant things dominate the narrative while crucial issues are left by the wayside.

Let’s start, of course, with Hugo Chávez. The president is favored in most polls, but is hardly campaigning in person. He is limited to one short public appearance per day. Sometimes he goes a day or more without appearing in public, relying instead on his overwhelming command of mass media.

His challenger, the youthful Henrique Capriles (shown in the photo above, with supporters), stages two or three events per day, at times in different corners of the country. He has taken to campaigning in Chavista strongholds — he held a large rally in Chávez’s home state of Barinas. His followers seem more enthusiastic about the election, but while most opinion polls show him catching up, he is not the favorite in this election.

There are really only three serious pollsters in Venezuela: Datanálisis, Consultores 21, and Varianzas. Both Consultores 21 and Varianzas put the race in a statistical tie, or close to it. Consultores 21 even put Capriles ahead by two points in their last two surveys, although the difference was within the margin of error. Datanálisis puts Chávez comfortably ahead, but reports large numbers of undecided voters.

This makes Chávez the favorite to win. Capriles has fought valiantly, but he has struggled to get his message across. Since Capriles has little access to traditional media, the narrative of the campaign has been heavily influenced by the government.

Late last week, for example, the main story was about an opposition congressman caught on tape receiving an envelope presumably containing cash from a mysterious person. Capriles quickly distanced himself from the congressman and the tape, saying there was no room in his campaign for pay-for-play schemes. Regardless, the National Assembly spent an afternoon debating the issue. (The congressman in question claims the money was a legal contribution from a Chavista entrepreneur, and that it was for his campaign and unrelated to Capriles)

In the meantime, more weighty issues are not being discussed. There has been little focus on Hugo Chávez’s platform, which, according to Professor Javier Corrales of Amherst College, calls for an increase in the militarization of society, nationalization of workers’ savings, and a virtual abolition of state and local governments in favor of "communal councils" that report directly to the Presidency.

Instead, Chavistas have raised doubts about supposedly "neoliberal" policies in Capriles’s plans, which the candidate has denied. There were two serious fires in the nation’s refineries, possibly due to the government’s lack of maintenance, but the issue came and went. Capriles presented a plan for improving education, but it barely caused a ripple.

One complicating factor for Chávez could be the worsening electricity crisis. After years of neglect, the nation’s electric grid is in shambles, and blackouts are now reaching Caracas itself. This week we learned that due to underinvestment in the natural gas grid, Venezuelan power plants are forced to burn 300,000 barrels of diesel per day at a heavily subsidized price.

In spite of this, it appears as though a sizeable number of voters are willing to give Chávez another six-year term. They identify with him, they genuinely believe in his concern for the poor, and his social policies are popular. That, along with the fact that Venezuela’s economy is growing thanks to soaring oil prices, may be all that Chávez needs.

Then again, it may not be enough. One of the interesting results in the latest Varianzas poll is that the percentage of Venezuelans saying the country’s economy is in bad shape went up sharply in the last month.

There are only a few days left until we find out if Capriles can pull off a momentous upset.