There are only ten days to go before the presidential elections in Venezuela and the campaign is heating up – well, it is mildly increasing in temperature anyway. On the streets of Caracas election propaganda displaying pictures of the two leading contenders is attached to almost every lamp post and telegraph pole, walls are covered in posters with the big smiling faces of Hugo Chávez or Manuel Rosales either urging Venezuelans to reach the “10 million” votes (a Hugo Chávez slogan) or to vote for the candidate who wants to govern for the “26 million” Venezuelans (which Manuel Rosales, the main contender, claims he will do if he wins). Trucks can be seen covered in those same slogans, too, and if you can’t see them you’ll hear them as they habitually have huge speakers strapped in to the back pumping out tunes closely associated with either camp. And regular marches combine all those sounds and visuals with crowds of supporters out to show the strength of their chosen leader’s support.
The two candidates are very different in personality and style and so are their supporters. Policy-wise there are similarities and differences, but while Chávez has remained consistent in his rhetoric and the kind of society he hopes Venezuela can become, Rosales and his camp have moved significantly to the left on many issues compared with their traditional ideological standpoint. What is unusual about the two candidates' campaigns, however, is their independence from one another. There is no direct debate between the two sides. In the main they are out to mobilize their own support base rather than engage seriously in a battle of ideas. For that reason it is better to view the election as two distinct campaigns rather than one overall campaign.
In terms of personality and style Chávez is way out in front. He is well known as a charismatic figure – he is charming, a great orator and comes across as down to earth. Most Venezuelans can relate to him. On the other hand, it seems that Rosales was at the back of the line when the charisma was handed out. He speaks without passion and comes across as a bit dull. Of course, traditional opposition supporters will vote for him because he is against Chávez but to be able to attract the votes of the poor he has to convince them he is better than Chávez. That he has not done up to now.
Much more problematic for Rosales than his personality are his past actions. In 2002 when Chávez was briefly overthrown in a coup the leaders of the coup produced a document called the Carmona Decree (named after Pedro Carmona who was imposed on the Venezuelan people as president during the coup). This document called for the dissolution of the Bolivarian Constitution and the National Assembly both of which had been legitimized through a referendum by the Venezuelan people. Rosales signed the decree as Governor of the state of Zulia despite the fact that the majority of Venezuelans supported the return of Chávez as president. And they hit the streets to demand his return forcing the coup leaders to abandon their attempt. Rosales now says putting his signature to the decree was an “honest mistake” but whether honest or not it was a highly damaging mistake. He has little democratic legitimacy in the eyes of a large section of the population. An equally insurmountable obstacle he created for himself that impedes his ambition to reach out to Chavistas was his disgraceful comment to an interviewer when he appeared on Mega Channel 41, a Miami TV station. To quote directly he said, “There is roughly 33% of what they call chavecismo, or whatever this government system is called, the majority of them are parasites who live off the government and are subsidized by the state.” And he wonders why he seems to be stagnant in the polls.
Political demonstrations have been a big part of the campaign and while in Venezuela demos are noisy, passionate affairs on both sides of the political divide, there is certainly a different character to opposition marches when comparing them with Chavista marches. Maybe it’s about class. Certainly, most Chavistas come from the poorest sectors of society and most opposition supporters are middle class, but in reality it’s not so black and white (even though most Chavistas tend to be dark skinned and a majority of Rosales supporters European looking!), as there are middle class Chavistas and working class Rosales supporters. It’s just that Chavista marchers seem more relaxed.
Chavistas are a sea of red, due to the t-shirts and caps they wear; salsa music plays, people dance, sing, and drink a few beers. Banners indicating the city, village, the union, or the social mission they belong to are common. And speaking with Chavistas, they all generally sing from the same hymn sheet regarding their opinions on the government and the president. At a recent gathering in Petare (a barrio in Caracas) where Chávez was the guest of honor, José Antonio Pérez, a local resident, “For me this is one of the greatest days of my life. There have been many changes here since President Chávez came to power in 1998: health and education facilities have improved our lives here in Petare so much. And without the president none of it would have happened. For that reason we must ensure he is elected again,” he said. Similar praises were heard over and over again throughout the afternoon. But what comes across from Chavistas is their confidence of victory. They are pretty sure they’ve got it in the bag. For that reason the atmosphere is more jovial.
Opposition marches also have the music and the dancing, but they tend to be more sober affairs. The last big march in support of Rosales in Caracas was held on November 4. There was a certain edge to it. Those involved behaved as if they had just attended a pep talk by an army sergeant-major before they marched. They were laughing and cheering, but there was just a different feel. Probably because they know they are fighting a losing battle, but they are going to fight till the end. One thing to note is that it is a mistake to view all opposition supporters as very rich and greedy people. There are plenty of those, but there are also plenty of lower middle class people, fed a daily diet of bullshit by the private media, that will vote for Rosales against their own economic interests. And they were out in force for the march.
Marío Marínez is 36 and lives in Maracay and works as a garage mechanic. He traveled to Caracas for the march with his wife and 3 children. I asked him why he felt he would benefit more with a Rosales victory than with six more years of President Chávez. “In the first place I don’t see the benefits of the missions. Although I work only as a mechanic I live in an apartment in a lower middle class area so and the missions aren’t organized where I live. Why not? I think they are to ensure the vote of the poor remains with the government, health services should be for all 26 million voters.” He also spoke of the government’s foreign policy and how he thought it was putting Venezuela at risk, “We are a peaceful country. Why is Chávez causing us problems with the most powerful country in the world? We want good relations with everyone.” At this point three other marchers who had obviously overheard the conversation put in their 10 cents worth. They said in unison that Chávez was mad and that he didn’t care about the middle classes. I asked if they really thought it was possible to govern in the interests of all Venezuelans, “We work very hard and he wants to take away our homes and our jobs, which we have worked very hard for.” Did they agree with the social missions? “In principle, yes, but there is so much corruption.” All agreed that Rosales would be a unifying force in the country. When I asked them if they had spoken about the unifying potential of Rosales to Chávez supporters lately they just stared at me blankly for a moment before return to the chants of “26 millions.” It seems they still have some way to travel themselves before they really acknowledge that there are 26 million Venezuelans in the country.
The candidates blend into the campaign by touring the country to mobilize support, giving speeches at the marches and all the usual stuff. Like most elections across the globe, there is limited detail on policy. Rather, Chávez promises more of the same, that is, more socialist policies and resistance to imperialism. He plans a “deepening” of the revolution. His supporters know what he means and if he doesn’t deliver the trust between the two will weaken. They want the corrupt state bureaucracy fixed and they want more freedom to manage their own lives, whether that is through more participatory democratic institutions in their neighborhoods or through more workers’ co-operatives in industry.
On the other hand, Rosales does make more effort than Chávez on policy and has made some effort to engage with Chavistas (he has attempted to tour several barrios where he has been given, to say the least, a frosty reception). But it’s as if he has done it with his nose held, aware from all the polls that he needs some of their support but just can’t quite put a brave face on while he does it. His strategy seems to be to keep the bits of the government’s program he knows are popular with the poor majority – basically the social programs, while at the same time slagging off the government’s propensity for giving away the nation’s oil to its neighbours on the cheap, something he hopes will resonate with a certain proportion of Chavistas. He has also put forward a new social policy. He plans to give out a new card called “Mi Negra,” which will be a social security card that will provide a basic monthly wage for the unemployed among the popular and lower middle classes. In providing individuals with financial assistance it is a clear break with the more solidaristic policies of the Chávez government. Whether he believes in his policies one can’t be sure but he knows very well that if he doesn’t get a good chunk of the barrio vote he’s off back to Zulia in December.
And, unfortunately for Rosales, according to the polls, that is exactly where he is heading. Chávez is way out in front. The results of the latest poll were released on November 14 and were typical and showed Chávez on 58% with Rosales trailing far behind on 27%. That 20 points plus lead has been pretty consistent over the last couple of months. Try as he might Rosales is no match for Chávez.
There are still some fears among Chavistas that Rosales may withdraw at the last moment. This occurred in the National Assembly elections last year when the opposition argued the voting machines could not be trusted. This time Rosales has backed the system, saying it is fair but this has already split the opposition. Accíon Democratica, one of the traditional parties that governed Venezuela before Chávez came along, has called for a boycott. However, it does seem that Rosales will fight till the end and will be beaten convincingly, which may be an implicit acceptance by the opposition that, due to his popularity, Chávez can not be removed by playing dirty.In truth, up until now the campaign(s) has not been so exciting. That could still change, however, with ten days still to go and there is little doubt that election day itself and the few days after will be interesting. Those, like myself, who are sympathetic to the government, are waiting for it all to be over so the real battle can begin – that between the left and right within Chavismo itself.