Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-VENEZUELA: Chavez’ Rival Closes Gap

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Dec 3 1998 (IPS) - Leading pollsters in Venezuela agree that Sunday’s presidential elections will be a close fight, after Henrique Salas closed front-runner Hugo Chavez’ wide lead in the last few days of the campaign.

Executives of top polling firms pointed out here that a difference of 300,000 declared voting intentions in the polls was considered a tie, with the latest polls showing an even narrower margin between the two favourites.

Pollsters also agree that the post-election scene will be tense, because the winner would triumph by an extremely small margin, and that there will be problems because both sides are highly mobilised.

Antonio Gil Yepez, president of Datanalisis, told the Caracas Press Club Wednesday that no one could be sure how the grassroots supporters of the two traditional parties – the social democratic Democratic Action (AD) party and the christian democratic Copei – would vote, in light of the parties’ recent decision to shift their support from their own candidates to Salas.

But public opinion analyst Andres Stambouli, who carries out surveys for AD, predicted that 80 percent of the supporters of the two traditional parties would cast their ballots for Salas.

Stambouli said the resistance to Chavez arose from the discourse of the former coup leader, who “seeks to divide the country between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Venezuelans, where those who are with him are honest and the rest corrupt.” In his view, that has led all those who want change but not a “leap in the dark” to rally to Salas’ cause.

Salas – an independent centre-right 62-year-old politician who launched his candidacy on the back of a successful career as a state governor – made a last-ditch effort to secure a victory with a Caracas gathering of a majority of the country’s governors and mayors, who promised to back him.

In the volatile last 10 days of the election campaign, a rainbow of groups and public figures who warn that Chavez will usher in a dictatorship – based on his 1992 aborted military uprising – have joined forces behind Salas.

Chavez, a 44-year-old retired lieutenant-colonel who accepts no political label other than that of a ‘Bolivarian’ – for Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar – is the standard-bearer of the ‘Polo Patriotico’, which groups nearly all of Venezuela’s leftist forces and former coup leaders.

Prior to the last minute massive switch of allegiance to Salas, Chavez enjoyed a comfortable lead of over 10 points in opinion polls since April.

Nearly 200 of Venezuela’s 335 mayors and 15 of its 23 governors elected in the Nov. 8 regional elections gathered Wednesday in Caracas to formally pledge their support for Salas.

“Now we will defeat him more quickly,” commented Chavez, who described the governors and mayors as “the last mask of the rotten regime of the parties which we are going to bury.”

Salas declared at the heated rally of governors and mayors who do not form part of his recently created ‘Proyecto Venezuela’ that “everyone knows I will attack, head-on, the corruption and ‘clientilist’ party politics” which have drawn the people’s wrath.

Most of the governors are mainstays of the discredited two- party system. Within the AD and Copei, they imposed the traumatic shift from their own candidates to Salas, who had previously been bashed by the two traditional parties.

The candidacies of Chavez and Salas polarised the electoral climate with campaign platforms promising radical change, a regeneration of Venezuela’s political foundations, and an end to AD and Copei hegemony – which Venezuelans blame for the sharp decline of their oil-rich South American country.

One of the directors of the Carter Foundation headed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who preferred not to be identified, commented on her special interest in Sunday’s elections. “This is not a democracy that is being born or reestablished, but a democracy that is revitalising its democratic system.” Carter is expected to arrive here Friday to observe the elections.

Amidst cheers of “Democracy!” and “President!”, Salas told the mayors and governors that on Sunday “we will give them a beating, and give the people, who are fully justified in their despair, real answers.”

Salas declared that no “open or hidden pacts” lay behind the spontaneous support for his candidacy, nor was there any “unified complicity among leaders plotting one of their deals so loathed by the people.”

Citizens have “the right to a democracy that functions, that gives them security and order,” he proclaimed, adding that if he won, he would not only fight corruption and pork-barrel politics, but also “sectarianism and indecency.”

The speakers at the rally stressed that they had joined together to confront the threat that Chavez represented for democracy, peace and freedom. “He wants to plunge us into hatred, and draw a line between honest and dishonest, depending on whether we are with him or not,” said Ernesto Calderon, a state governor who belongs to Copei.

But Chavez maintained that “the grassroots supporters of AD and Copei will come over to my side” after witnessing “the sad tragicomedy of the corrupt leaders stripping the mask off of Salas’ independence.”

Chavez has said in the heat of several rallies that “we are going to fry the heads off the ‘Adecos’,” (AD supporters) and – waving a whip typical of the Venezuelan plains, his home region – “throw out the corrupt AD and Copei leaders at the crack of a whip.”

At Salas’ rally, Carlos Barbosa, president of the Federation of Mayors, said “around 290 of us are with Salas. We belong to many parties, including those supporting Chavez, and we have imposed ourselves on our leaders, not the other way round.”

“We can correct the errors in democracy,” said Venezuela’s youngest female mayor, Nancy Lopez.

“The real revolution in Venezuela comes from the process of decentralisation and regional and municipal leadership which we represent, which has already forced the parties to change if they want to survive,” said Eduardo Lapi, the country’s youngest governor, reelected last month with 76 percent of the votes.

Chavez’ anti-system platform is based on a proposal to politically “refound” the country by means of a constituent assembly that would have the power to dissolve Congress, intervene in the judiciary and revoke, by plebiscite, the mandate of elected leaders.

He also proposes a reconcentration of power in a new federalism, and says those opposed to the constituent assembly, if it is approved by a referendum, could be arrested for infringing the law.

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