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Venezuela: The Fear Factor

By Alex Beech

19.11.06 | In the coming presidential elections, the talk centers around the ni-ni factor, the undecided voters who don't favor the government or the opposition. Many pollsters have determined that undecided voters will determine who wins the elections. With a Clintonesque drive to campaigns through polls, both incumbent Chavez and opposition candidate Manuel Rosales have increased their efforts to appeal to the undecided voters.

However, it's not the ni-ni factor which will determine the outcome of the election, but the fear factor; not the guy twiddling his thumbs, wondering whether Chavez's second story highway is more appealing to him that Rosales's promise to provide more jobs. Who will determine the outcome of the elections is the guy who is sitting at home with two kids, a car in the garage, and a chicken in the oven, who is wholly dependent on the government, either directly or as a contractor. After seeing thousands of Venezuelans fired from the state oil company after the strike, and thousands more fired after the referendum, ordinary Venezuelans are terrified of voting against the government.

In a recent study to determine how the fear factor influences voters, the Hannah Arndt Foundation polled 1,200 Venezuelans using colored pencils stenciled with political slogans: red, the color of Chavez's MVR party, blue, the color of Rosales's Unity Movement, and neutral. When potential voters believed they were being polled by Chavez's pollsters, 55% said they would vote for Chavez, and 45% opted for Rosales. When others thought they were being polled by Rosales's pollsters, 52% said they would vote for Rosales, and 48% would vote for Chavez. The neutral colored pencil with no political markings gave Chavez only a three point lead, 51% over 49%. Given a three point margin of error, the last result yields a technical tie.

Because the Chavez government knows the fear factor will determine whether it wins or loses, it is doing everything in its power to scare potential voters. This has included, not only threats to state oil workers, but smaller and quieter efforts at the local level.

In a recent editorial, Tal Cual editor Teodoro Petkoff writes that public sector workers who were not fired after their names appeared on the "Maisanta" and "Tascon" lists, (government-published reports of those who voted against Chavez in the referendum), have been summoned by their superiors recently. In one government office, a supervisor said to a woman, "you voted 'yes' in the referendum. On election day, I want you and your family to report to this office first thing in the morning." Threats such as this are being reported throughout the country.

One of the government's most efficient moves in feeding the fear factor was in switching Venezuela's voting system to new technologies during the referendum. Not only were new and untried computers introduced, but so was a new fingerprint detection system. Voters, used to paper ballots, were suddenly confronted with automated systems during every step of the process. When thousands were later fired for how they voted, voter distrust in the new technology solidified. Both educated and uneducated Venezuelans would never trust the voting machines or the fingerprint technology again.

At some point, desperation trumps fear, and that may be the opposition's only hope. As December nears, it is clear that Rosales is gaining more followers. As the tide of Venezuelans clamoring for change grows, the fear factor may subside. But there isn't more that the opposition can do than to say, "don't be scared. Dare." The rest is up to history, and whether enough Venezuelans are ready to risk everything for democracy.

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