Adiós Comandante?

At the weekend Venezuelans go to the polls in a presidential election. Incumbent Hugo Chávez is under pressure

7-O is coming in Venezuela. On Sunday 7 October the South American country will elect a leader who will take it through to pretty much the end of the decade. The favourite to secure the victory in the race is well-known. He is loved and loathed across the world. He is the man who has campaigned on a self-created ideological mix of socialism, nationalism and personality since he was first voted into the Miraflores Palace in 1998. He is, of course, Presidente Hugo Chávez Frías. There is almost no need to say his name, such is his celebrity (or notoriety), and indeed that is one of the electioneering tactics being used by the main opposition candidate.

Henrique Capriles Radonski represents the opposition’s best chance to oust Chávez since the buccaneering leader came to power. Capriles has united dozens of anti-government groupings and parties under his ‘Primero Justicia’ (First Justice) banner. He is also refusing to recognise his powerful opponent by name, preferring to label Chávez as “the candidate of the PSUV” [the ruling government party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela]. Capriles knows the president has constructed a personality cult in the country, be it through his TV programme Alo Presidente or through his high-falutin international speeches attacking one Western country or another; the opposition’s man recognises he has to chip away at Chávez’ charismatic charm in every way he can.

Capriles has been whizzing around the country on his so-called ‘Pueblo por pueblo’ (Town by town) tour, trying to employ the energy that was once synonymous with the president, but who now cannot run around as he once did. Chávez has been suffering from an unconfirmed type of cancer and his team have been unable to silence the whisperers that doubt whether he will be fit enough to serve his country for another six-year term and that ponder the power vacuums that would arise should he be forced to give up power suddenly. The president has been popping back and forth to Cuba as he was treated for the disease and has declared himself cured.

Hugo Chávez is 57 whereas Henrique Capriles is 40 and the younger man has been squeezing every ounce out of his advantage of being 17 years younger than the leader. On Sunday, with a week to go until the vote, he mobilised hundreds of thousands of supporters in the capital, Caracas, whipping up the cheering crowds into a frenzy, shouting “you are the future, you must choose who is in the process of change and who is sick of power”. Chávez was once the forty-something upstart revolting against an entrenched order and the battle he faces on Sunday from Capriles resembles very closely the political fights that he used to pick and win.

Mud-slinging has been as evident in this campaign as in any other. Henrique Capriles has railed against perceived corruption amongst the ruling echelons of the country and lamented the attention that the government gives to foreign matters, saying the focus should be on a more domestic outlook. Hugo Chávez has said his rival will never win the election because he is a “pig”. But there has been a darker side to the election trail, with two members of opposition parties that are backing Mr Capriles’ campaign shot dead on Saturday 29 September by unidentified gunmen, but who were linked by witnesses to the state-owned oil company PDVSA. For its part, the government has said it will bring the killers to justice but it has opened up a bubbling public worry: that an inconclusive result could stoke civil unrest.

Big, social proyects aimed at alleviating some of the widespread civil suffering that is present further down Venezuelan society are a mainstay of the president’s policy bank and have proved very popular. Henrique Capriles has tried to assuage those who fear he will ditch all welfare support by pledging to maintain and improve the social programmes. He has said that he wants to build a ‘Venezuela for all’ but has been criticised by the government as someone who is too close to the interests of big business and religious conservatives. The president could never be accused of being in the pocket of capitalists; he has embarked upon a large-scale nationalisation package drawing many private interests back under state regulation. There is much to separate the men policy-wise, but there seems to be little to split them when it comes to the polls. Hugo is up in most but Henrique has a lead in two of the recent surveys.

The mercurial soldier who once launched a coup attempt on what he saw as the corrupt order in his beloved Venezuela is now the establishment himself. Hugo Chávez is facing an energetic challenge from a rival who has captivated large segments of Venezuelan society just like Hugo used to do. The president has to convince the citizens that, despite the popular appeal of his younger challenger and despite his own faltering health, he is still the powerhouse man to lead the oil-rich country for the next six years. Chávez has to show that he can clean up the awful rising crime and that he can safeguard the economy. In short, (and to use a word that the president himself is not averse to employing), Chávez’ unwritten slogan seems to be ‘better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t’.

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