Polls show that Venezuela’s presidential elections on Oct. 7 could be the closest in recent history.
A string of negative headlines, including a deadly explosion at a refinery, is leading some voters to question whether President Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution can effectively manage the oil-rich country.
The Aug. 25 blast at the Amuay refinery that killed 48 people; the collapse of a bridge connecting the capital, Caracas, to the east of the country; the anger of state employees protesting salary payments: All of these factors have contributed to a tightened race that Chavez comfortably led until recently.
A poll completed last month by a local company, Consultores 21, gives opponent Henrique Capriles, from the center-left Unified Democratic Panel coalition, 47.7 percent of voter support versus 45.9 percent for Chavez. Until this poll Chavez appeared to have a secure lead in the race, despite his repeated absences from the public eye due to his cancer treatment in Cuba.
Throughout the campaign, Chavez has attempted to cast Capriles as a “lightweight,” dismissing his experience as former governor from the northern state of Miranda. Still, the Chavista political organization has not appeared to intimidate Capriles. He has run an effective campaign that aims to appeal to the estimated 30% of respondents in voter surveys who claim to be undecided. Should he be elected, he has vowed to lead a Brazilian-style “modern left”: a market-friendly, but socially conscious government. He has also outmaneuvered Chavez by emphasizing his vitality, through tactics such as well-publicized walks through some of Venezuela’s rural villages.
Despite the tightening polls, Credit Suisse analyst Casey Reckman maintains that a Chavez re-election remains likely. “We continue to expect that Chavez will be re-elected, supported by his base, significant fiscal spending since last year and various tactics that could influence voter turnout,” she wrote in an Aug. 21 report, Venezuela: A Tightening Race.
One key asset Capriles lacks is control over the oil-funded government purse. Triple-digit crude prices have helped cement the Venezuelan leader’s popularity with his largely impoverished electorate through his investment of billions of petrodollars in infrastructure and social welfare programs. According to Bloomberg News, in the past six months alone government spending has increased by 34% compared to the same period a year earlier.
A decline in crude prices – as was recently projected by Credit Suisse – could force the regime to cut social spending, though any belt-tightening is not likely to happen ahead of election day on Oct. 7.
Ironically, high oil prices are also a double-edged sword for Venezuela. Despite holding one of the world’s largest crude reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia, the country remains heavily dependent on expensive imports of refined oil products. Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant PDVSA, which controls all of the country’s refineries, can’t process enough crude oil to meet demand because its aging infrastructure has fallen into disrepair, as the deadly Aug. 25 explosion indicated.
Venezuela’s decrepit refineries force the government to pay market prices for petroleum products, such as gasoline and fuel additives, which it then heavily subsidizes for the population, further depleting its coffers.
Should Capriles win on election day, he and his center-left coalition will need to score a decisive victory to ensure a smooth transition, says Credit Suisse’s Reckman. This is a tall order. Despite the refinery explosion, general concerns over the country’s infrastructure and the fact that Chavez is a deeply polarizing figure, he remains popular. This election remains his to lose.
Allison Jackson is a freelance journalist based in Guadalajara, Mexico. She has written for the GlobalPost in the United States, Agence France-Presse in China, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and Thomson Financial.
Photo: World Development Movement – Flickr