The autocrat and the ballot box

ON SEPTEMBER 12th a queue of stationary vehicles kilometres long blocked the coastal highway that leads out of Pue...
ON SEPTEMBER 12th a queue of stationary vehicles kilometres long blocked the coastal highway that leads out of Puerto Cabello. _Politics,_ said a resident, wearily, by way of explanation.

The politics in question were taking place beside the entrance to the port city_s weed-infested airstrip. A small group of supporters was waiting to escort Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition candidate in Venezuela_s presidential election, to a rally in town. A couple of hundred red-shirted supporters of President Hugo Ch__vez were throwing stones at them from across the highway as a sound system blasted out campaign songs. A pickup truck had been set on fire. _The opposition has no right to come here and deceive working people,_ said Luis Rojas, one of the stone-throwers and also an employee of the city_s chavista mayor.

Mr Ch__vez, a former lieutenant-colonel who preaches radical socialism and rails against American imperialism, is seeking to be elected president for the fourth time on October 7th. But after nearly 14 years in power, he faces an unprecedented electoral challenge to his autocratic regime. A previously weak and divided opposition, prone to political miscalculation, has set aside its differences to form a seemingly solid coalition of parties from the left and right, under the banner of the Democratic Unity coalition (MUD).

To the surprise even of the MUD_s supporters, more than 3m of Venezuela_s 19m registered voters took part in its primary election last February, choosing Mr Capriles by a commanding majority. A former governor of Miranda state, which includes large parts of the capital, Caracas, 40-year-old Mr Capriles is 18 years younger than Mr Ch__vez. He is energetic, centrist and an impressive enough campaigner never so far to have lost an election.

This seems to have rattled the Ch__vez regime, as the fire and smoke on the Puerto Cabello highway show. The local branch of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) announced its intention to disrupt the MUD rally at a press conference the day before; municipal vehicles were laid on to take the chavistas out there. A dozen people were injured and several vehicles belonging to the opposition looted; the mayor blamed the violence on Mr Capriles. It was not the only one of his recent rallies to have been disrupted by orchestrated violence.

Mr Capriles eventually arrived at his campaign event by getting a lift in a fishing boat. The speech the chavistas did not want him to give was a brief set of promises to maintain and expand Mr Ch__vez_s social programmes while eliminating the corruption and favouritism that blights them. He also addressed local problems: the biggest round of applause was for his pledge to end power cuts. With a big electricity generating station nearby, Mr Capriles said, _the lights should never go out here._ A few days before, Puerto Cabello had suffered a 12-hour power-cut. Unscheduled blackouts are frequent there, as they are almost everywhere in the country outside the capital.

Mr Capriles remains the underdog. But deteriorating infrastructure and growing frustration give him a better chance than he might have expected. Despite the entrenched strength of his position, Mr Ch__vez has disappointed enough of his countrymen to be facing the fight of his life.

Polling discrepancies

At the previous presidential election, in 2006, Mr Ch__vez was at the height of his popularity. He trounced the opposition candidate, Manuel Rosales, by 63% to 37%. With that sweeping mandate he nationalised an important chunk of the economy, closed down the most popular private television channel and weakened the powers of elected state and local governments, many of them in the hands of other parties. He went on to win, at the second attempt, a referendum abolishing term limits, allowing him to campaign for a further six years in office at this election.

Opinion polls_some, admittedly, carried out by companies firmly in the president_s camp_suggest he will win again. Most continue to give the president a lead of 10% or more. But others suggest that the two main candidates are neck and neck. Some even put Mr Capriles slightly ahead.

According to Luis Christiansen of Consultores 21, the polls share some common features despite their differing results. None of the established polling companies puts Mr Ch__vez above 50% in voting intentions this time. And the percentage of undecided respondents and those who won_t say is generally greater than the gap between the two main candidates. The president_s support has remained static in most polls and declined in a few. Mr Capriles has gradually gained ground. But has he done enough to win?

Mr Ch__vez remains a formidable opponent. He says he is free of the cancer for which he has been operated on three times_though his rallies have been noticeably fewer, and smaller, than in past campaigns. He has an armlock on the country_s institutions. Government buildings and websites are plastered with election propaganda, a violation of electoral law that has been met with only the most timid of protests from the mostly pro-government board of the electoral authority.

The media, which were a hotbed of anti-government sentiment from the time of Mr Ch__vez_s first election to his winning of 2004_s recall referendum, have been largely tamed. The president frequently commandeers all television channels for broadcasts that can last for hours; election rules limit Mr Capriles to three minutes of pre-recorded campaign broadcasting a day. This is just one way that the election, in the words of Ram__n Guillermo Aveledo, secretary-general of the MUD, _will be free, but not fair_.

As well as the advantages of abused office, Mr Ch__vez can boast enduring popularity among a broad swathe of poorer Venezuelans. They like him for his charisma, humble background and demotic speech. They trust him to act in their interests. His years in power have coincided with a sustained surge in the price of oil, Venezuela_s main export (see chart 1), providing a windfall which he has used for wage increases and social programmes.

Thanks largely to the government_s economic mismanagement, Venezuela suffered more than the rest of Latin America from the 2008 financial crisis, and Mr Ch__vez_s popularity dipped as a result. With the oil price recovered, the economy is now growing at an annual rate of around 5%. Yet as well as making more money from oil, Venezuela is also piling on the debt, both through public borrowing and through the borrowing of Petr__leos de Venezuela, the state oil monopoly (see chart 2). Under Mr Ch__vez the oil company has been turned into a bloated, all-purpose development agency with which to dispense largesse. Three-fifths of Venezuela_s oil revenues are siphoned off into off-budget funds under the president_s personal control, according to Francisco Rodr__guez, an economist at Bank of America who used to work for Venezuela_s National Assembly.

Your vote_or no new house

Over the past year or so, the president has begun to spend his war chest. Mr Rodr__guez calculates that public spending has expanded by 30% in real terms over the 12 months to August. Some of this has gone on new _grand missions_, as Mr Ch__vez calls his social programmes, the most important of which promised in 2010 to provide over 350,000 new homes by the end of 2012. That compares with under 600,000 new homes (by official estimates) in the previous 11 years. Over 3m people are registered for the new programme, providing the government with valuable electoral data. The government insists that an opposition victory would dash the hopes of the homeless.

_No member of the bourgeoisie wants anything to do with the people,_ says Mar__a Ascanio, attending a chavista rally in Caracas on September 22nd. _The Venezuelan people have opened their eyes [to that]._ She had been bused in from the Tuy valleys, an outlying district of the capital, and says she is one of 16,000 people in her municipality who has registered for a house. Like 2,500 others she has had one allocated to her, but has been told, as have most of the others, that it will not be built until _after the election_. Ramona Ca__o, also from the Tuy valleys, is not yet among the beneficiaries, but says that _those of us who have not yet received the benefit are still hopeful._ Now 61, Ms Ca__o says she was illiterate before Mr Ch__vez came to power, but is now studying law. _Venezuela loves Ch__vez with guts, heart and mind,_ she enthuses.

If love doesn_t do the trick, fear might. Some public employees_whose ranks have more than doubled under Mr Ch__vez to over 2m_have been obliged to fill out forms saying exactly where they will be voting. Like the election ballots, these forms require a signature and a thumbprint: the implication that the government will monitor how they vote does not need to be spelled out. Venezuelans remember that a chavista legislator published the names of 2.4m people who signed a petition that led to the 2004 recall referendum against Mr Ch__vez, with unpleasant repercussions for many. The MUD_s experts dismiss fears that the vote will not be secret. But the fingerprinting and sporadic violence will surely deter some potential opposition voters on October 7th.

Weary of mismanagement

According to Mr Christiansen_s polls, the new missions brought the president back into contention. But the bounce has not been on the same scale as the one he bought before the recall referendum, when with Cuban advice he set up the first missions, for health and education.

Puerto Cabello shows why that might be so. As the country_s main port, with a superb natural harbour, an oil refinery, Caribbean beaches and an attractive colonial district, it ought to be thriving. But locals gripe that the good jobs are given to outsiders, including Cubans. They complain of crime, unemployment and poor public services. On a scruffy patch of beach beside a small marina, Jos__ Miguel is putting out plastic chairs and assembling awnings from bent and rusty poles and torn canvas. A mechanic and construction worker, he says he hasn_t had a steady job in years. _I_m never voting for Ch__vez again,_ he says. _Fourteen years in power and this is what we get?_ With a sweep of his arm he indicates plastic waste and pools of stagnant water. The mayor, he says, never sends crews to clean the beach. _It gets cleaned because we pay someone to do it._

Years of inadequate maintenance, corruption and incompetence have left Venezuela_s infrastructure in a sorry state. A blast in the Amuay oil refinery last month killed 42 people (six are still missing). Across the country, roads and bridges have collapsed or been washed away by rains, severing main transport arteries. A 180km (110-mile) railway linking Puerto Cabello with Maracay and other towns should have been ready this year. Although the concrete supports of its viaducts make dandy sites for sticking up government-propaganda posters, they do not have any railway tracks on top of them.

The state of the country_s public hospitals is another blemish on Mr Ch__vez_s record. The president has repeatedly promised 16 new hospitals, but as far as The Economist can tell only three seem to have been built. (The health ministry failed to answer repeated requests to confirm the number.) Poor wages and conditions have led thousands of doctors to abandon the public-health system for private clinics which the majority of the country_s people_most of whom are uninsured_will never be able to afford. All public hospitals are short of supplies and many are partly closed. The doctors_ federation says that the country has only half the doctors it needs and that some hospitals have only a third of the staff they were designed for.

The government points to heroic spending on primary health care through Barrio Adentro (_Inside the barrio_), a mission set up by Cuban advisers in 2003. This has saved _over 2m lives_, claims Eugenia Sader, the health minister. The claim is ludicrous: only around 130,000 Venezuelans die each year. Doctors working in the primary-health _modules_ of Barrio Adentro say at least a third of them are closed; if so, that would be an improvement on 2009, when Mr Ch__vez himself admitted that about half were closed, and another quarter operated only half-time. His information, he said, came from his ally Fidel Castro: it is the Cuban medical mission, not the Venezuelan government, that keeps the books on Barrio Adentro.

The government_s shortcomings are more palpable than they were six years ago. The opposition_s candidate is more plausible. Mr Rosales was provincial, a poor speaker and old fashioned. Mr Capriles, who was a mayor and a member of parliament before he wrested the governorship of Miranda from Diosdado Cabello, a close associate of Mr Ch__vez, has a lively campaign style. He portrays himself as a Brazilian-style social democrat who shares the people_s concerns while shunning the government_s corruption. Rather than concentrating on the bastions of the opposition in the bigger cities he has criss-crossed the country, saying he will visit 300 marginal or strongly chavista districts (the Puerto Cabello rally was one such incursion). As well as promising to preserve the popular social programmes, including houses for the homeless, Mr Capriles has pledged a rise in the minimum wage and land titles for peasant farmers along with a lot of investment in infrastructure, especially in electricity and transport.

Mr Ch__vez is having none of it: the voters can join him in building _21st-century socialism__which is the only way to save humankind_or hand the country back to an oligarchy serving the interests of the United States. Seizing on the MUD_s heterogeneity_it includes parties and figures from the widely reviled politics of the 1990s_he derides his opponents as the far right in leftist clothing, bent on a _neoliberal_ economic squeeze. When not dismissing Mr Capriles as a spoiled rich kid with no ideas he calls him a _fascist_, at which Mr Capriles, some of whose great-grandparents died in the Treblinka concentration camp, takes understandable offence.

Margarita L__pez Maya, an historian who has in the past been sympathetic to the Ch__vez project, says she is not persuaded that the MUD is wholly committed to the _participatory democracy_ enshrined in the 1999 constitution. But she has become convinced that if the president is given a fresh mandate he will eventually eliminate democracy altogether.

In 2010, after the opposition had won control of many municipalities and states, Mr Ch__vez set up a system of communes__socialist local entities__across the country, presenting them as a way of devolving power to the people. The communes depend entirely on the central government. _Decisions are taken in assemblies by the raising of hands,_ says Ms L__pez Maya. _It is the Leninist idea of the soviet._ Now all the laws needed to abolish democratic local government and create a _communal state_ have been drafted, Ms L__pez Maya says. They are _just waiting for [victory on] October 7th._

And what if Mr Ch__vez loses? He said earlier this month that a Capriles victory would lead to a _profound destabilisation_ of Venezuela, which might even cause _civil war_. The opposition worries that the army might back the president if he decided not to recognise defeat. In 2010 General Henry Rangel Silva, now the defence minister, said the armed forces were _wedded_ to Mr Ch__vez_s socialist project and would find it _difficult_ to accept a change of government, though he later qualified these comments. The president himself often says the army is chavista.

Encouragingly, General Wilmer Barrientos, the armed forces_ senior operational commander, said in a television interview earlier this month that his institution would respect the election result. He pointed out that the constitution requires the army to be politically neutral, and said he would be willing to meet opposition representatives.

Even if the army is not chavista, though, most state institutions are. They will pose daunting problems to Mr Capriles if he wins. Should Mr Ch__vez win, he will try to use their power to make his _revolution_ irreversible. But he is likely to find that power harder to wield in a country that is showing itself to be a lot more evenly divided than in the past.

By The Economist

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