Weakened from battling cancer and visibly bloated, President Hugo Chavez is fighting for his political life in Sunday’s presidential election, as he faces a charismatic challenger who has energized a once-disunited opposition in a way none of the populist leader’s foes ever has.
At stake is the president’s experiment to remake Venezuela, a 14-year transformation characterized by the expropriation of private companies, diplomatic initiatives to counter U.S. influence and a near-mystical bond with the country’s poor masses.
Two established pollsters show Chavez, 58, with a substantial advantage, underscoring the loyalty of millions he has commanded since sweeping into power in 1998. But two others have Chavez and Henrique Capriles, 40, a lawyer and former governor who has never lost an election, in a virtual dead heat.
“This is seriously competitive,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Americas program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “I would say it’s the first time since Chavez was elected that the accumulated learning experience of the opposition and the accumulated problems of the country have brought the race to a place where it’s almost too close to call.”
The election is almost certainly being watched closely by Iran, which has found an ally in Venezuela, and myriad small countries in Latin America that have received aid in return for opposing Washington.
The outcome is also expected to be tracked by energy markets. Venezuela recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the country with the biggest certified oil reserves, and Chavez is considered a price hawk within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, an organization Venezuela helped found.
Capriles campaign officials said they believe that the large number of undecided voters identified in some polls will back the challenger at the ballot box, leading to Chavez’s defeat. That bold prediction is buttressed by the opposition’s revival after years of uninspired campaigning and the disenchantment many Venezuelans express to pollsters about decaying infrastructure, rampant violent crime and shoddy services.
But the president’s advantage is undeniable. State media have delivered fawning campaign coverage while the Chavez administration has doled out refrigerators, new apartments and other gifts to prospective voters.
“He has given love and made it easy for the people, the only president we have had who has had anything to do with the poor,” said Soleña Arcila, a nurse who came out Thursday for Chavez’s last pre-election speech. “Chavez will be here forever.”
Still, there are signs that things are not as rosy for the president as they have been in the past. Political analysts say Chavez’s campaign has been lackluster, and nagging questions remain about his health, which is a state secret.
That has many Venezuelans wondering whether the dashing former army paratrooper who stormed to prominence a generation ago as the leader of a failed coup has mustered the emotional appeal needed to get millions of voters to once more cast ballots for him.
Although the president still gives a resounding speech, the Chavez of this campaign has resorted to issuing the kinds of pleas expected from a candidate coming from behind.
“This government will be much better than all the governments of Chavez,” the president, who often speaks about himself in the third person, said in a recent speech. “I promise I will be a much better president than I have been.”
‘The country needs a change’
The Venezuela the two men are battling for is a country awash in historic oil earnings, but one that has the feel of having missed out on the democratic awakening and economic boom that is modernizing much of Latin America.
Bridges and highways are decrepit, patients are forced to bring their own medicine to public hospitals, vast state projects are unfinished, rolling blackouts affect much of the country and prison riots kill hundreds each year.
Polls show that voters are most concerned about a sharp rise in homicides, with 19,336 people killed last year, up from 4,550 in 1998 when Chavez was first elected president, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a group that tracks crime.
“How could they fail to read what the people were thinking after 14 years?” Capriles asked in a recent speech. “The people are tired of that.”
Chavez’s rhetorical flourishes against the United States and his warnings about the bourgeoisie may still electrify radicals. But they fall short for ordinary people whipsawed by problems, said Carlos Romero, a political scientist and co-author of the recent book “U.S.-Venezuela Relations Since the 1990s.”
“Most of the people in Venezuela are tired of Chavez’s political speeches, the speeches that are very radical, that try to divide Venezuelans and don’t take into account the most important problems that Venezuelans are facing every day,” Romero said.