Climate as Polarised as Ever as Elections Loom

Nov 23 2006

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Nov (IPS) – “They shall not steal a single one of our votes,” vowed opposition candidate Manuel Rosales, after claiming that he had beaten incumbent President Hugo Chávez in surveys of voting intentions for Venezuela’s Dec. 3 presidential elections.

The final stretch of the campaign is turning into a “survey war”, with five polls granting Chávez, who is seeking reelection, a clear advantage, and at least three others indicating a “technical draw” between the two candidates.

Rosales and Chávez have both resorted to “live surveys”, that is, street demonstrations. Rosales has held dozens of marches and rallies, attempting to show that he is in the ascendant among the electorate while his competitor is on the way down. Chávez has called only a handful of public meetings to prove that he has an overwhelming lead.

Baseball, Venezuelans’ favourite sport, has not escaped the contest. Rosales made an impromptu appearance at a game between the popular Leones of Caracas and Navegantes of Magallanes teams, and was cheered by the crowd. Chávez is said to be preparing for a similar appearance at another such baseball classic, according to rumours from his campaign headquarters.

“I go with Chávez wherever he goes, and if he goes to the stadium, so will I,” Luisa Mujica, who works for the Ministry of Education and confesses that she is not a baseball fan, told IPS.

“I’m one of those who go to as many events in support of Chávez as they can, because he’s the only president I have seen who is really concerned about the poorest people, those who had nothing before,” she explained.

“We want Chávez’s projects, we feel protected by this government and by its missions to promote health, nutrition and loans to work with,” Luis Canelón, a small farmer from Vargas state, bordering Caracas, told IPS while marching with hundreds of his peers through streets in the centre of the capital city on Monday.

The government’s long list of social programmes or “missions” have included an adult literacy campaign, a programme under which thousands of Cuban doctors have brought primary health care to the slums, micro-credit schemes for the poor, special markets in low-income neighbourhoods providing food at subsidised prices, and soup kitchens.

In contrast, Ángela Quintana, a teacher at a private school, told IPS at the door of the salesroom where she plans to buy a small new car that “people who go to Chávez’s rallies do it because they hope to get handouts, but many of them should realise that assistance can provide some relief, but it won’t get them out of poverty.”

Car sales have climbed in Venezuela along with economic growth. The Central Bank reported this month that the economy grew 10.2 percent in the third quarter of the year compared with the same period in 2005.

A former leftwing activist who was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the dictatorship of general Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1948-1958), Pablo Moscó told IPS that he takes part in the pro-Rosales demonstrations “because we have to march against losing our freedom, as is happening little by little under Chávez.”

What the candidates are saying is very similar to what their supporters at the grassroots are saying, more evidence of the deep political polarisation in this country since 2000, of which the Dec. 3 presidential elections appear to be just another instance.

“There are only two positions here: capitalism, which they (the opposition) are defending, and socialism, which we are pushing forward. That is the confrontation, the debate that is happening on the street,” Chávez told his supporters at a campaign rally last Sunday.

Anything else, the president said, “would be to mask reality, with irresponsible, ultra-populist proposals. They want to be a colony under imperialism, and we propose socialism and sovereignty.”

“We shall make them bite the dust of defeat,” Chávez harangues at times, while on other occasions he says that “it is impossible for them (his rivals) to come back (to power).” Sometimes he tones down his speeches with phrases like “I have done everything out of love,” or “my confrontation is about ideas, I don’t hate the middle class or anyone else.”

Rosales, for his part, states that “democracy is sick” in Venezuela because power is concentrated in a single person, meaning that Chávez’s partisans control all five State powers: the Executive, Legislative, Judicial, Citizens’ (which includes the offices of the Prosecutor General, the Comptroller General, and the Ombudsman) and Electoral branches.

Election advertising for the opposition candidate and the leaders of the coalition of 40 parties and groups that support him convey the message that the December elections represent a choice “between two models of life: democracy and authoritarianism.”

Whereas Chávez is offering “advancing towards socialism,” and in the past few weeks has inaugurated large bridges, an aqueduct and a train service, and laid foundation stones at the construction sites of other works, Rosales has concentrated on criticising “the ‘giving away’ to other countries of money that belongs to Venezuelans.”

He said that if he is elected, he will revise the oil cooperation accords that the president has signed, and divert the resources that currently go to other countries into a cash transfer programme for the poor, which would use debit cards.

Political analysts agree that Rosales was able to galvanise the opposition, overcoming the “abstentionist tendencies” that predominated in that heterogeneous sector since the main opposition groups decided at the last minute to withdraw from the legislative elections a year ago.

The polls indicated at the time that the opposition was set to receive a trouncing in the elections.

The result was a lower voter turnout than normal and an uncontested victory for pro-Chávez lawmakers, who now hold all of the 167 seats in Venezuela’s single-chamber parliament.

Chávez told foreign correspondents that even if Rosales garnered a fair number of votes in the elections, it was not likely that the opposition would be able to achieve reform measures aimed at regaining seats in parliament.

“It is their own fault that they are not represented,” and besides, “they have other spaces: two governorships (out of 24) and several city governments (out of a total of 335),” said the president.

“I’m willing to engage in dialogue, but the open, candid Chávez is a thing of the past,” he added.

For the opposition, the Dec. 3 elections are a window of opportunity not only to try to push Chávez out of power, but to begin to build an alternative and come up with a figure who could replace him in the medium to long-term, said former socialist leader Teodoro Petkoff, who heads Rosales’ campaign team.

“Even if we don’t win, we have already achieved the objective of rebuilding the opposition forces, in such a way that (Chávez’s) authoritarian plans are not the only ones out there,” diplomat Milos Alcalay, a member of Rosales’ team of advisers, told IPS.

But Rosales, after insisting for weeks that “there is a candidate (Chávez) who is going down in the polls and another who is going up,” told the foreign press Tuesday that “we are now ahead in the polls.”

Chávez, however, says it is “mathematically and politically impossible” for him to lose the elections.

Meanwhile, his campaign chief, Information Minister William Lara, said the polls indicate that the president will be reelected with 70 percent of the vote.

In the August 2004 presidential recall referendum organised by the opposition, Chávez — who was originally elected in late 1998 — was backed by 59 percent of voters, compared to 41 percent who wanted him to step down. The referendum registered the highest voter turnout in Venezuelan history.

The polls now show that at least 60 percent of the country’s 15.9 million registered voters plan to cast their ballots in the Dec. 3 elections. There are also 13 other candidates, but they are basically unknown, and do not even appear in the opinion surveys.

Chávez said he would respect the outcome announced by the electoral authorities, “whatever it may be,” while Rosales, who claims that four out of five of the members of the electoral court are supporters of the president, said he would respect the results “if they are clean, because we will not allow ourselves to be robbed of one single vote.”

During the recall referendum, international observer missions sent by the Organisation of American States (OAS) and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s Carter Centre found no sign of fraud.

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