Election season in Venezuela

By Ricardo Angoso (for Safe Democracy)

Ricardo Angoso explains why Hugo Chavez is ahead in the polls and why he will continue to be the President of Venezuela, despite the rise of the opposition candidate Manuel Rosales. Yet, given Chavez‘ imminent victory, the fact that the opposition party has been able to stage such a rapid comeback is important evidence of the growing discontent in Venezuela of Chavez‘ administration. Because the economy continues to be a disaster throughout the country (despite the rise in the price of oil), poverty remains endemic and insecurity and unemployment are growing, even Chavez‘ most loyal supporters begin to doubt the past eight years of unfulfilled revolutionary promises.

Ricardo Angoso is a journalist specializing in international affairs and the general coordinator of the NGO Dialogo Europeo in Madrid.

ON DECEMBER 3, VENEZUELA WILL CELEBRATE SOME EXTREMELY IMPORTANT ELECTIONS. For the first time since his rise to power in 1998, Hugo Chavez will face a united democratic opposition, intent on exposing the stagnant economic situation that the Chavez executive has claimed to be flourishing.

The election will be a difficult one for the opposition, which has still not found out how to distance itself from the traditional mistrusted political game, nor shake its association with a few highly unpopular political figures, like ex-President and fugitive from justice Carlos Andres Perez. Yet, despite its difficulties, this is the first time that the opposition has been able to break free of the limits imposed by the dominating Chavistas in all political spheres.

Despite Manuel Rosales’ impressive rise, Chavez is still ahead in the polls, and will almost certainly continue to be President of Venezuela.

Yet, it is important to remember that according to polls published in Caracas, Chavez is going through one of the most critical periods of his regime since the 2002 Coup d’Etat. His popularity is the lowest that it has been in four years.

How is it possible that the discredited democratic opposition could rise in the polls and profile itself as a possible alternative to Chavisim? The answer is simple: the economic situation continues to be a disaster, the majority of the country is suffering from chronic poverty and endemic misery, and insecurity is growing in almost every region with no one capable of stopping it. Even those sectors, which up until now were most loyal to the Maximum Leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, are now beginning to show their disillusionment with the current state of affairs.

There is no doubt that the Chavistas will win, but their majority will have lessened. This is the great drama of a battered Venezuela.

According to figures from the Central Bank of Venezuela, the accumulated inflation for 2006 has reached 10 percent, and in many official circles it is debated whether this figure will double by the beginning of 2007.

The middle and lower classes are the ones most affected by this crisis. With current incomes at about 200 dollars, no one is able to reach the end of the month. The inflation seems to be a result of the excess of money circulating in the economy, a product of elevated (and often wasteful) public spending. From December of 1998 to July of this year, inflation went up 376 percent, while the middle class, as is claimed by the Venezuelan economist Luis Vicente Leon, augmented its earnings by 236 percent. The lack of reliable, accurate information is evident from the crude economic figures offered by the government.

No one in Caracas understands why, with gas prices at 60 dollars, the Venezuelan economy has not been able to distribute national wealth evenly among the society and improve the quality of life of its citizens. Chavez’ critics attribute the situation to the creation of more than a million new functionary posts in the state apparatus. These positions have been created through non-democratic procedures in order to allow Chavez to hand out favors to his supporters, at the expense of democratic institutions and public expenditure.

Rather than using its oil exports to help stimulate economic growth, Venezuela has squandered its earnings. Chavez’ Bolivarian revolutionary discourse can no longer hide the economic failure of his regime.

According to opinion polls and studies, however, the major concern on the mind of the Venezuelan populace is not the economy, but the growing insecurity caused by Venezuela’s devastating unemployment. These two issues, insecurity and unemployment, are two of the Chavez regime’s major failures and will prove to be decisive issues in the upcoming elections on December 3.

The government has officially recognized the unemployment rate to be at about 10 percent. Numerous analysts, however, offer a higher, less politically biased, figure. The rate of informal employment meanwhile, which is to say employment that is either precarious or part time, is as high as 46 percent.

The current situation has caused Chavez’ popularity to drop in the polls, and allowed the opposition its first chance in years to present itself as an alternative. The margin, however, is still large. The President has a positive approval rating of 48 percent, while the opposition has only secured 17 percent of the votes. Yet, the 35 percent of swing voters, either undecided or disillusioned, may play an important role in deciding the electoral outcome.

And as the tension mounts, many are growing more and more certain that the elections will swing in favor of the opposition, against Hugo Chavez.

For local sociologist Oscar Schemel, Director of the important Venezuelan studies firm Hinterlaces, Chavez’ loss of popularity is due to the growing discontent and despair of sectors of society, which have traditionally supported the labor party and the ideological discourse of President Chavez.

After ten years of useless Bolivarian rhetoric, many are already beginning to openly criticize the waste, bureaucracy, corruption, and inefficiency of Chavez’ system, incapable of generating wealth and wellbeing in a tired yet deserving population. Chavez himself stated: our internal enemies, the most dangerous for the revolution, are bureaucracy and corruption! Never have the Maximum Leader of Venezuela’s words rung so true.

Regardless, it is a major achievement in itself that the democratic opposition to Chavism has for the first time in its history united firmly and decisively behind one candidate: Manuel Rosales.

Before the growing united opposition, Chavez’ supporters will try to close ranks. Yet Chavez’ movement has never acted as a classic political party. Rather it has been a network of minority party leaders, ex-guerrillas, notorious leftists, syndicalists, and true believers in the Bolivarian Revolution: a very diverse and hard to unite group. The Chavist cause has also attracted some opportunists of little principle who would abandon Chavez at the first sign of a change in government.

The electoral campaign will be difficult, long, and no doubt very dirty, unexempt from the violence and political turbulence that has characterized Venezuela for ages.

At the very least, however, we can hope that the elections will be just and fair, and that the two parties will adhere to the results of the urns, something that does not often happen in these latitudes. Chavez, for his part, has already announced on CNN that he would adhere to the public’s decision. We will have to wait and see.

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