Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-VENEZUELA: Polls Will Test Reforms, Traditional Parties

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Nov 3 1998 (IPS) - Regional and legislative elections to be held on Nov. 8 are expected to shake up the very foundations of Venezuelan politics and capture the public mood for presidential polls scheduled for Dec. 6.

None of the favourites to win the presidentials, Venezuela’s most crucial elections since the end of the last dictatorship in 1958, belong to any of the country’s traditional parties and they are offering a radical change in its political model.

The November/December elections are a litmus test of sorts. They will allow Latin America to guage the electoral effects of neoliberal reforms applied throughout the region in the past decade. These reforms, coupled with disillusionment over the cronyism of the traditional politicians, have provoked the ire of sectors marginalized and impoverished by the neoliberal model.

The two leading presidential contenders – former coup leader Hugo Chavez and ex-state governor Henrique Salas – belong to none of the established parties. Both are proposing radical changes to the political model, and Chavez is taking a populist and nationalistic stance.

The regional map that emerges after the Nov. 8 elections and the composition of the next congress will provide a hint as to the strength of the candidacies of Chavez, a retired lieutenant colonel who tried to stage a coup d’etat in 1992, and Salas, who has won points by offering change without uncertainty.

Pollsters and independent political analysts indicate that the party that has governed Venezuela the longest – Democratic Action (AD) – will win most of the 23 state governorships that are up for grabs, followed by the other pillar of the country’s traditional two-party structure, the Christian Democratic Copei.

But in key states, the candidates of the new party formed by Chavez, Movement V Republic, will either win or place a close second.

Analysts note that the 12 to 15 states in which AD is likely to win (up from 11 in 1995) are the least populated in the country. Moreover, the many alliances being made by the some 500 national and regional organizations that are competing in each state could enable AD, Copei, the Patriotic Pole that backs Chavez, or Salas’ Project Venezuela, to take the governorships of key states.

The parliamentary elections will thus provide the best indicator of how the December vote will go. Some surveys predict that Chavez’s party will be the big winner in at least the senate elections, in which AD and Copei are expected to make a dismal showing. The other new party, Salas’ Project Venezuela, is likely to come in third or fourth in the elections.

The established left-wing parties, such as the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and Country For All – which support Chavez – and the workers’ party, Radical Cause, are expected to lose several seats in the congressional race.

Convergence, the party of current president Rafael Caldera is likely to disappear in the elections. After ruling Venezuela from 1969 to 1974, Caldera broke away from Copei in 1993, obtaining re- election thanks to a convergence of various parties, most of which now back Chavez.

Other groups are unlikely to win even one percent of the vote, including IRENE, the party of presidential candidate and former mayor Irene Saez who topped the polls until March when an ill- advised alliance with Copei undermined her image as an independent. She is now in fourth place.

The future of the incoming parliament seems uncertain, given Chavez’s vow to call a Constitutional Assembly, which will have the power to dissolve Congress and intervene in the judiciary.

The regional and legislative elections were scheduled to take place on Dec. 6, but at the last minute, AD and Copei joined forces to impose an agreement to advance the date by a month so that the polls could serve as virtual primaries favouring them in the presidential elections.

They apparently believed they would make a strong showing in November, and that thus would serve as a springboard to ensure victory in December.

But AD hopeful Luis Alfaro, is the least popular candidate according to public opinion polls. Only 4.8 percent of those surveyed in the most recent poll, made public Friday, said they would vote for Alfaro. This is a surprisingly low score since 17 percent of respondents said they were sympathetic to AD.

In the survey, 44.8 percent said they would vote for Chavez, whom Salas trails with 39.2 percent. A record 44 percent of respondents identified themselves as independents, some 60 percent said they would stay away from the November polls, while 88 percent said they would vote in December.

But Alfaro, Saez and their followers say that the true poll will be on Nov. 8. That vote, they claim, will create a new swing, turning them into a decisive pole of attraction for people who fear Chavez will impose a violent, authoritarian regime.

The Nov. 8 vote will also be a test for relatives of the two leaders in the eastern state of Barinas, where Chavez was born 44 years ago, and in the central state of Carabobo, where Salas ,62, began his political career as governor for the two three-year periods permitted by law (1989-1995).

In Barinas, an agricultural state, Chavez’ candidate for the governorship is his father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez. Polls put him in second place. In the industrial state of Carabobo, Salas’ son, Enrique Salas Feo, is almost sure to be re-elected.

The Nov. 8 elections are also important for ex-president Carlos Andres Perez, who ran the country in 1974-1979 and 1989-1993.

If, as the polls indicate, he is elected senator for his native state of Tachira, Perez will obtain parliamentary immunity, which would free him from preventive house arrest, imposed on him in connection with corruption charges.

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