Could Hugo Chávez Really Lose Venezuela’s Election?

As the Venezuelan election nears, Hugo Chávez is fighting for his political life, writes Boris Muñoz.

Rodrigo Arangau, AFP / Getty Images

At last after three dizzying months, the Venezuelan presidential campaign has come to an end. It ended with massive rallies where thousands of people chanted their slogans on the streets of the country’s two main cities on Oct. 4. President Hugo Chávez’s followers wore red T-shirts and baseball caps—the so-called red sea—and inundated Bolívar Avenue and other important streets in the center of Caracas, while Henrique Capriles Radonski, the 40-year-old, self-proclaimed center-left challenger, did the same in Barquisimeto, in the western part of the country. In some sense, the final rallies gauged the candidates’ momentum.

Chávez’s act ended abruptly with a huge storm that overflooded the streets, dispersed the crowd, and forced him to make a much shorter speech than usual—and a particularly obvious and perfunctory speech at that. Capriles traversed Venezuela Avenue in Barquisimeto against the backdrop of a soft sunset and gave a vigorous speech that many thought was the best in the campaign.

Citing stories from the Bible, Capriles called upon the people to leave aside their party and ideological differences and issued a challenge to the so far unvanquished Chávez. "I want to tell President Chávez that I’m grateful to him from the bottom of my heart, because he has allowed me to see the path we must take: it’s the path of love, not hate—of light, not darkness,” Capriles proclaimed. “This has been a spiritual struggle for me: the struggle of David against Goliath—and let us not forget: David won!”

For Chávez, the end of the campaign was an anticlimax, and for Capriles, the pinnacle of his political career. Almost everybody agrees that Capriles gathered enough momentum to catch up with Chávez. Three months ago Capriles was just the candidate that the opposition had chosen to represent them in the race. Now, after a surprising campaign that took him around the country three times, he is a national leader who has managed to make a break in the country’s polarization. But the crucial question is, who will win Sunday? Many things make it impossible to be sure.

To begin with there’s a war of surveys that give markedly different accounts of public opinion. The surveys favoring Capriles give him a slight edge—between 1 and 5 percent. Those that favor Chávez give the incumbent an advantage of between 6 and 12 percent.

Until three weeks ago, Luis Vicente León, director of the pollster firm Datanálisis, thought Chávez’s lead would be too difficult to overcome. But today he believes that Capriles has managed to close the gap and conquer three quarters of the swing voters, also known as ni-nis. The total number of voters in Venezuela is 18 million, and 25 percent abstention is expected. According to León, swing voters make up 9 percent of the voters. This means that there are three possible scenarios for Sunday. “If all the [swing voters] move to the opposition, Capriles will win. If 60 percent of them favor Capriles and 40 percent favor Chávez, the president will win by 6 percent. And if they all vote for Chávez, he will win by 11 percent.”

“Capriles closed his campaign brilliantly,” León said in an interview Friday. “There’s no doubt that he’s the celebrity of the past few weeks.” Since Datanálisis is known to be reliable, Chávez has mentioned its surveys several times to show he is winning. Leon is unequivocal about a Chávez victory, saying, “Until now, Chávez has been the dominant figure. But the scenarios aren’t clear. The gap has closed because of Capriles’s grand finale and because Chávez doesn’t look healthy. The trend is for swing voters to favor Capriles, but Chávez’s numbers are still strong.”

Many Venezuelans perceive the race as a dead heat. Both the Chávistas and the opposition feel confident and are getting ready to toast to the winner. This seems to indicate that the result will be settled on the toss of a coin.

During the last month, the government has used many strategies to persuade voters that the opposition will refuse to acknowledge its defeat. A preferred strategy has been to threaten the voters with an outburst of popular violence.

Throughout this presidential race Venezuelans have witnessed a Chávez with two personalities. One has preached the love of revolution above all other earthly needs—such as electricity, running water, personal security, employment, or paved roads. This preacher has promised to correct all his mistakes and make government more efficient. The other personality, the preacher of hate, has fomented an ecology of fear: he has cautioned that if he’s not reelected, a neoliberal administration would take over and dismantle the system of aid to the poor—which he predicts would bring social instability, chaos, and even a civil war.

Surveys over the past few weeks show a narrowing gap and a weak performance by Chávez, and opposition speakers have started predicting that Capriles could win with an edge of up to a million votes—about 8 percent of the ballots. However, opposition speakers insist that the government will take any opportunity to block Capriles’s victory. At a meeting Friday in a hotel in the east of Caracas, Enrique Márquez, an opposition member of the National Electoral Council—whose board is dominated by Chávistas by 4 to 1—said that while the electronic voting system was reliable, an environment of fear could have a negative impact on votes for the opposition. Márquez has no doubt that if people are free to vote, Capriles will win. But that might not be the case. “For example, some areas of the country are controlled by guerrillas or armed groups that can intimidate the voters,” Márquez said.

The opposition alliance, Mesa de la Unidad, has put forward an aggressive plan to defend the votes. Leopoldo Lopez, one of the chief operators in Capriles’s campaign, said that the opposition has witnesses in every one of the country’s electoral centers.

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In a televised interview two nights ago, the president said he would honor the will of the people—as expressed in the results announced by the National Electoral Council. However, the opposition will remain on high alert until the last minute of balloting, and if the result is suspicious, it could be called a fraud. On the other hand, Chavistas have never accepted the possibility of losing, and if they do lose, they could also make accusations of fraud.

Fewer than 24 hours before voting begins, confusion reigns and contradictory information is bandied about. Both sides feel they are the winners and claim triumph. But the truth is that all that’s certain is that this is much more than a presidential election. The result will push Venezuela in one of two opposite directions.