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Hugo Chavez's crass campaign will cost him Venezuela's presidency

By Aleksander Boyd

Caracas 22.10.06 | How does one interpret political tendencies of a country bereft of trustworthy polls? Further, given that the state is not only the largest employer but also controls all economic levers, how can poll results be taken seriously? As a matter of principle I don't trust Venezuelan polls. Pollsters commissioned by political parties would think hard before presenting a bleak panorama to whomever contracts them, after all economic survival comes first. Take for instance fake pollster North American Opinion Research (NAOR). They presented to El Comandante a rosy picture, whereby no one in this country opposes the regime. Needless to say that they have become phenomenally wealthy. Another such pollster is Luis Vicente Leon from Datanalisis. In any case I shall try and offer a political picture based on what I have seen around Venezuela.

Hugo Chavez is a mediocre military man, with an extraordinary sense of opportunity and an almost unmatched gift of the gab. His command and use of the media has made him a world icon. Manuel Rosales is an extraordinary politician with perhaps equal sense of opportunity but lacks the personal charisma and oratory skills of his opponent. There's little doubt that Rosales would win hands down in a normal political setting, but, as we all know, Venezuela is far from such status. Chavez controls everything in this country, even the private media. He argues that a hostile media seeks to impose an imperialist agenda over the will of the people. Media barons, on the other hand, have denounced and documented his excesses in exquisite detail.

In the latest round poll numbers have been thrown out. Most of them suggest that Rosales is still between 10% and 25% down from Chavez. Some people are wondering about the validity of these numbers. Whether 10% or 25% they have obviously forgotten the fact that at least 40% of the electorate -should one take CNE numbers at face value- was not too long ago in staunch opposition of the regime. Then came the post referendum period, when most opposition folks felt abandoned by the leadership. This orphanage remained without sense of direction for more than two years, in which time a growing apolitical class, known as NI-NI started to emerge. NI-NI -neither opposition nor chavista- is considered to make up to a third of the electorate. Deep distrust towards the opposition political establishment was the first commandment of the group. Enter the opposition triumvirate of Teodoro Petkoff, Julio Borges and Manuel Rosales. The first has scant support beyond a tiny circle of people who considered themselves enlightened yet put their trust in an erstwhile guerrillero. The second lacks political ability, lacks charisma, lacks the support of his own party and wouldn't convince his own mother to vote for him. The third lacks charisma, lacks oratory skills but, out of the three, is the only successful politico with an excellent track record in the public administration, albeit in Zulia state, ergo little known in the rest of the country. Opposition people were eager to see a new face. They didn't trust oldtimers nor new faces associated with the Coordinadora Democratica. Hence when the candidacy of Rosales was announced a slow political migration started to take place, timidly at first. As the presidential race heats up, more and more of the opposition gets mobilised around Rosales' ticket.

Rosales has been running an extenuating campaign. The guy just does not stop. He travels all around the country every week, without discriminating small towns. He is taking his message directly to what he considers his potential voters, but more importantly he is listening to people's plights. In every declaration, press conference or street meeting Rosales is addressing issues that affect poor Venezuelans.

In the meanwhile Hugo Chavez talks about sending militias to Bolivia or gets his Comando Miranda to cover the country with propaganda, so detached, so disconnected from the everyday reality of his constituents that it can only benefit Rosales. The latest example I saw was a poster that read "vote against the Devil. Vote against the empire." No message, no new offer whatsoever. So let me put myself in the shoes of the black lady I photographed scavenging for food in a rubbish pile last week. Will she go vote for a man that has utterly failed to help her in 8 years or will she do so for someone who's promising instant cash and housing? The short answer is: for none. Historically abstention levels are always very high among the poorest. Besides, to her, who sits in Miraflores makes no difference. The shrinking middle class is highly political, it's mobilised, it takes part, it's informed about issues and knows the dangers that lay ahead. To them is now or never. And the top bracket of the poorest, i.e. class C and D as defined, are a rather conservative bunch that are eager to hear more about Rosales' offer.

Hardcore chavistas on the other hand have great difficulty in explaining in what way has live improved in the last 8 years. In Los Guayos I had conversations with many chavistas before the fight. Not one could provide a coherent answer about the alleged improvements boasted by the regime. When asked about the millions of dollars that Chavez has given away to his international pals while people near to where we were don't even have a roof over their heads they go mum. There's no answer for that. The misiones effort has concentrated in Caracas and so were infrastructure projects that are but culmination of past initiatives. Misiones money don't make it to the regions. In the best of cases only 10% of the initial sum reaches its intended recipient every quarter. Chavistas in power are just too busy robbing the country blind to pay any attention to the political situation. And that has a huge political cost for the caudillo, who keeps barking orders to an increasingly deaf team of cronies.

Rosales keep saying "on December 3 we will win and we will collect" ("El 3 de Diciembre vamos a ganar y a cobrar"). However no explanation has been given with regards to the way of collecting the alleged victory. The only politico I have heard thus far addressing the issue was Leopoldo Lopez last week in Montalban, west Caracas. He pointed out, quite rightly, that every Venezuelan committed to the country's democracy must be prepared to defend its vote. In Lopez's opinion is an individual responsibility rather than a collective one. I was pleasantly surprised having argued exactly the same case for quite some time now. Alas Rosales has not informed the country about possible mechanisms to defend the vote and thus be able to claim victory. I have heard many people say that Rosales' team will defend the vote, but at this juncture who is Rosales's team if not every Venezuelan willing to live in a democracy?

Hugo Chavez's crass campaign will cost him the presidency. There's no time for strategical rearrangements. The love message rings hollow with his hardcore constituents, eager as they are in eliminating politically and otherwise the opposition. But his "vote against the devil... or to win or to die..." is so far out, so remote to chavismo light -interested in endulging in La Dolce Vita- that it could easily be considered the biggest-to-date mistake of Fidel's apprentice. Rather than a sound win of Rosales it seems increasingly likely that Chavez's many blunders are going to hand the victory to his opponent on a silver platter. Having his master in a deathbed, unable to provide counsel, certainly does not help the 'Bolivarian revolution.' The ever increasing number of disenfranchised want to hear about employment, security, opportunities and a better life. Their former saviour however is not interested in the slightest in these issues.

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