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Elections in the Shadow of Chávez

Nicolás Maduro and Henrique Capriles will face off on Sunday. Credit: Courtesy of Maduro and Capriles campaigns

CARACAS, Apr 12 2013 (IPS) - Venezuelans will cast their ballots this Sunday to elect a successor to late president Hugo Chávez. The choice is between his political heir Nicolás Maduro – the front-runner in the polls – and the leader of the revitalised opposition, Henrique Capriles.

In the presidential elections that will inaugurate the post-Chávez era, voters will opt for continuity of the late leader’s “21st Century Socialism” or support Capriles’ campaign platform, which promises social and economic progress.

The campaign has been dominated by the figure of Chávez and the powerful wave of grief in the wake of his passing on Mar. 5, 21 months after he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer.

Maduro was foreign minister from 2006 to 2012, vice president after October 2012, and interim president since Chávez travelled to Cuba for his last bout of treatment.

Maduro, the candidate of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), “has not had the time to build his own image and leadership style; he is dissolved in the legacy, and his style is a kind of ‘copy and paste’ version of his late leader’s,” Mariana Bacalao, an expert on political communication, told IPS.

Analyst Manuel Malaver, an opposition sympathiser, said “the competition is between a very powerful government with a very bad candidate, and a weak opposition with an excellent one…I believe if the campaign were longer, Capriles could well beat Maduro, but its brevity gives Maduro a big advantage.”

Nicmer Evans, a government-leaning political scientist, said “there are three actors in the race: Maduro, Capriles and also Chávez, who is the main candidate in these elections, because what is being debated is whether or not his vision for the country will be accepted.”

Chávez won a new presidential term for 2013-2019 in the October elections, with nearly 8.2 million votes, equivalent to 55 percent. His chief rival, Capriles, the candidate of the Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD), received 6.6 million votes, or 44.3 percent.

The Venezuelan constitution states that if a president dies within the first four years of taking office, elections for a successor must be called within 30 days. This stipulation left the candidates with only 10 days to campaign across this country of 916,000 square kilometres, 24 states, 333 municipalities and 30 million people.

Both Maduro and Capriles have been travelling at top speed from one end of the country to another, visiting up to three cities in a single day, in a bid to galvanise first and foremost their faithful supporters among the electorate, which remains highly polarised.

The candidates are attracting crowds to their rallies that are as or more numerous than they were in the 2012 campaign, presaging another high turnout rate, although experts expect that it will not reach the October record of 81 percent. Voting in this country is not compulsory.

“If Capriles increases his share of the vote a bit, and part of the Chavista electorate abstains (studies show that one in four do not want Maduro), the chances for the opposition are very real,” Carlos Ocariz, coordinator of Capriles’ campaign, told foreign correspondents when the campaign got under way.

The polls published up to last weekend (Apr. 6-7), based on surveys carried out in March, put Maduro in the lead, between seven and 18 percentage points ahead of Capriles.

“None of our scenarios contemplates a possible victory for Capriles,” pollsters Germán Campos of Consultores 30.11 and Jesse Chacón of GIS XXI told IPS.

Around 57 percent of Consultores 30.11 respondents said they would vote for Maduro, while the study by GIS XXI concluded there would be a repeat of the results of October, 55 to 44 percent.

The most traditional polling firms, like IVAD and Datanálisis, also predicted a comfortable win for Maduro. But they declined to report new results once the campaign had started. The electoral laws forbid the publication of polling estimates in the week prior to the elections, and all campaign activity had to end Friday Apr. 12.

Just hours before the pre-election media blackout came into force, polling firms DatinCorp and Datamática found a rise in Capriles’ popularity and a decline in support for Maduro.

The gap between voter intentions for Maduro and Capriles found by some of the more traditional polling firms was cut in half five days before the elections, IPS was told.

Because of the brevity of the campaign, both candidates have behaved aggressively towards their rivals, accentuating the acute polarisation that has marked politics in Venezuela since Chávez first became president in 1999.

“Little Petulant Man, Little Bourgeois,” Maduro taunted his rival, while Capriles accused him of “Fresh Lies” and they heaped insults on each other. They also berated the Electoral Council and called on the public to keep alert for possible tricks and supposed plans on the part of the loser to dispute the results.

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, is married to fellow PSUV leader Cilia Flores. He mocked the 40-year-old Capriles’ status as a bachelor, while Capriles taunted Maduro’s mistakes in Venezuelan geography and his anecdote about feeling the presence of Chávez in the form of a little bird.

“The language the two main presidential candidates have been using is deplorable. They have been banking on polarisation, which has caused so much damage,” complained Marino Alvarado of Provea, a human rights organisation.

“In a country racked by violence on all sides, we have a political leadership that is not setting a good example, with language that contributes nothing to concord or the peaceful solution of conflicts,” he told IPS.

“Let’s hope there is a clear victory for the winner, rather than a narrow difference, for the sake of peace in the country,” said analyst Jesús Seguías of DatinCorp.

Chacón said, “if there is a wide gap, Maduro’s government can begin more comfortably; it will have the challenge of being more efficient, otherwise the voters will call it to account,” while the opposition would be able to regroup.

In Malaver’s view, “if the result of the vote is tight, even if the government party wins, the confrontation in society will remain. These elections will be like the first round, waiting for a final round, because the part of the country that did not accept the concentration of military and state power under Chávez will accept it even less under Maduro.”

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