Chavez’s foes hope­ful of elec­toral in­roads

The op­po­si­tion boy­cotted the last vote for the assem­bly. Now it seeks to gain from a bad econ­omy.

Los Angeles Times - - The World - Mery Mo­gol­lon re­port­ing from cara­cas, venezuela Chris Kraul re­port­ing from bo­gota, colom­bia Mo­gol­lon and Kraul are spe­cial cor­re­spon­dents.

‘What is cer­tain is that the monochro­matic char­ac­ter of the assem­bly, with al­most unan­i­mous sup­port for Chavez’s poli­cies, is about to change.’

— Ri­cardo Su­cre, a Cara­cas-based po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant

Op­po­si­tion can­di­dates ex­pect to lever­age voter dis­con­tent to win a sig­nif­i­cant share of Venezue­lan Na­tional Assem­bly seats in Sun­day’s elec­tions, al­though an elec­toral law passed last year could help Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez’s al­lies main­tain their cur­rent ma­jor­ity.

All 165 seats in the uni­cam­eral congress are to be con­tested in the first Na­tional Assem­bly elec­tions since 2005, when the main op­po­si­tion par­ties boy­cotted the vote, thus ced­ing 100% leg­isla­tive con­trol to so­cial­ist fire­brand Chavez.

This time, op­po­si­tion par­ties on the right united un­der a sin­gle ban­ner called Demo­cratic Unity Ta­ble to present slates of can­di­dates na­tion­wide. Can­di­dates from left­ist par­ties who have dis­tanced them­selves from Chavez also are run­ning hard. Splin­ter par­ties Pode­mos and PPT, which once sup­ported Chavez, could gain 5% to 10% of the vote.

There is a sense that the pres­i­dent, now in his 12th year in of­fice, could be vul­ner­a­ble.

Many Venezue­lans are dis­sat­is­fied with an econ­omy that is cra­ter­ing while those of the rest of South Amer­ica are grow­ing by 4% this year. Some food items are scarce, and salaries haven’t kept pace with a 30% in­fla­tion rate, Latin Amer­ica’s high­est. Ris­ing crime has made Cara­cas one of the dead­li­est cities on Earth.

Many poll­sters ex­pect op­po­si­tion can­di­dates to garner as many votes as Chavez can­di­dates, if not more. More than 17.7 mil­lion Venezue­lans are el­i­gi­ble to cast bal­lots. Op­po­si­tion can­di­dates are ex­pected to do best in pop­u­lous in­dus­tri­al­ized states — Carabobo, Zu­lia, Mi­randa and Tachira — as well as in the cap­i­tal district.

“What is cer­tain is that the monochro­matic char­ac­ter of the assem­bly, with al­most unan­i­mous sup­port for Chavez’s poli­cies, is about to change,” said Ri­cardo Su­cre, a Cara­cas-based po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant. “It’s not clear what pro­por­tion of the assem­bly the votes will en­ti­tle them to, how­ever.”

That un­cer­tainty is the prod­uct of an elec­toral law passed last year. Pro­fes­sor Manuel Rachadell of the Uni­ver­sity of Cen­tral Venezuela said the mea­sure gives “over-rep­re­sen­ta­tion” in the assem­bly to states where Chavez’s sup­port is strong, whereas states where the op­po­si­tion is preva­lent are given fewer seats.

For ex­am­ple, pro-Chavez Ama­zonas state will get one deputy for each 40,000 vot­ers. But Zu­lia state, which has voted against Chavez in re­cent elec­tions, will get one deputy per 250,000 vot­ers, Rachadell said.

Chavez claims that his “so­cial­ism for the 21st cen­tury,” which in­volves re­dis­tri­bu­tion of oil wealth, pub­lic as­sets and some pri­vate as­sets to the poor, has re­duced poverty, im­proved ed­u­ca­tion and en­sured ba­sic health­care for all.

In a cam­paign speech Sun­day be­fore the close of the cam­paign, Chavez promised that can­di­dates of PSUV — the ini­tials stand for Venezuela’s Only So­cial­ist Party in Span­ish — would win a “new rev­o­lu­tion­ary hege­mony” and re­tain no less than two-thirds of the assem­bly.

But frac­tures within his base have be­come ev­i­dent in re­cent years. One­time al­lies, such as Lara state Gov. Henri Fal­con, have left Chavez’s PSUV, say­ing that his au­to­cratic and cen­tral­ized style of gov­ern­ing takes the oxy­gen out of state and lo­cal ini­tia­tives.

Chavez’s poli­cies have in­cluded govern­ment takeovers of bank­ing, en­ergy, food and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies as well as su­per­mar­ket chains. The takeovers have been fi­nanced by oil rev­enue: Venezuela is the fifth-largest ex­porter of oil to the United States af­ter Canada, Mex­ico, Saudi Ara­bia and Nige­ria.

But the takeovers have spooked do­mes­tic and for­eign in­vestors, As a re­sult, Venezuela’s fac­to­ries and farms are in de­cline, and the nation is forced to im­port in­creas­ing quan­ti­ties of ba­sic food­stuffs. Hous­ing is scarce be­cause de­vel­op­ers feel vul­ner­a­ble to squat­ters.

At the close of cam­paign­ing Thurs­day, the Demo­cratic Unity Ta­ble’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Ra­mon Guillermo Aveledo, pre­dicted that the elec­tions would be “like David ver­sus Go­liath, and will turn out the way the story in the Bi­ble ended.”

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