Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has “edged closer” to President Hugo Chávez, but lags 10 points behind the incumbent in the run-up to the October 7 election, Reuters reports:
Recent Datanalisis’ polls show support for Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, growing in the waning days of the campaign …..Capriles’ has vowed to create a Brazilian-style “modern left” that balances free enterprise with social welfare programs. Investors expect him to end a five-year nationalization crusade and reduce state intervention in the economy.
Chávez’s re-election campaign is being boosted by a surge in government spending on social programs that is reportedly “lavishly” bankrolled by China.
Slightly over 47.3 per cent of Venezuelans support Chávez, while 37.2 per cent back Capriles, September’s Datanalisis poll shows, although Consultores 21, another leading pollster, puts opposition candidate ahead by 48.1 per cent support to 46.2 per cent for the populist president.
Significantly, the poll also reveals that 15.5 per cent of voters remain undecided.
“If the majority of those voters opt for Mr Capriles, as polls show undecided voters have been doing in recent months, the margin could narrow to as little as three points, suggesting a technical tie,” reports suggest.
Less credible pollsters have put Chávez up to 20 points ahead, but Datanalisis “has had a record of accuracy in past elections and has earned respect from both political camps with its monthly surveys,” AP reports.
“The variation between the polls is so big that there are some that say Chavez is winning by 30 points and others that say he’s losing by almost 10 points,” said Angel Alvarez, a political science professor at Central University of Venezuela. “Most people don’t believe in any of the polls anymore because they see so much variability… there’s been a lot of skepticism about the quality of the polls to predict results.”
Some observers have cautioned that Chávez plans to steal the election, but others note that election-day fraud may not be necessary as the slanted political playing field is already working to the incumbent’s advantage.
“Without a doubt the greatest weakness of the process lies in the inequitable conditions of competition,” according to a report from the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, co-authored by José Woldenberg, a former president of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute and Genaro Arriagada, a former minister of the presidency of Chile and former ambassador to the United States.
Control of the media is one such inequitable advantage Chávez enjoys.
“Shortly after Venezuelan television stations began a live broadcast of a major opposition rally this month, coverage was cut and replaced with images of President Hugo Chávez looking jovial and fatherly as he visited young children at school,” the FT reports:
It was one of the populist leader’s infamous “chain broadcasts”, in which all regular programming on public access television and radio is suspended so that he can trumpet the achievements of his “Bolivarian revolution”, often for hours on end. Mr Chávez’s opponents cite this as just another example of how the socialist leader, who has said in the past he wants to rule until 2021, is stacking the decks in an increasingly tight race for the presidency.
The voting system itself “functions adequately, it ensures that aspects fundamental to the monitoring and oversight of the electoral process—by parties, citizens, and observers—are transparent,“ the Wilson Center report notes, while criticizing the “politicization” of the National Electoral Council, “which explains why it is so unenthusiastic about exercising some of its regulatory functions, especially with respect to the abuse of official publicity.”
The report finds that “the greatest weakness of the process lies in the inequitable conditions of competition,” which gives considerable advantages to the regime:
Media coverage is not even moderately balanced. Campaign financing is particularly opaque, although it is clear that the overwhelming majority of spending is by the government candidate. The government’s social programs, the so-called missions, are considered to be a decisive element in President Chávez’s support among vast sectors of the population, especially the poor.
Chávez’s access to state oil revenues “allows him to buy’ votes by investing heavily in his popular social programs,” notes the FT’s Benedict Mander. “Central government spending grew by 41.1 per cent in real terms last month.”
Chávez’s largesse is being funded by China, Bloomberg’s Charlie Devereux reports, as Beijing is charging Venezuela only 6 percent interest on its loans compared with 12 percent it pays for bonds issued in global capital markets:
Chavez has put the windfall to work…. In the past 12 months, government spending has risen 30 percent in real terms, according to Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, helping to drive economic growth of 5.4 percent in the second quarter. ….Much of the spending is going toward a plan to build 3 million homes by 2018, a pillar of Chavez’s campaign to defeat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to need China — they are an economic powerhouse,” Capriles said. “But many of the agreements the government has signed involve political loyalties that don’t interest us.”
Some observers believe a close election is likely to generate political unrest – a scenario that cannot be entirely discounted.
“Chávez still looks to be favored to win what will likely be a tight election, though a Capriles victory cannot be ruled out. A tighter result however, will increase the likelihood of a disputed election, especially if Capriles wins,” said Daniel Kerner, an analyst at Eurasia Group.