Hugo Chavez has been in power for almost 14 years. Venezuela's strongman has survived a coup and has battled cancer, so far successfully -- but his political career may succumb to the ballot box, as rising crime and a stagnating economy take center stage in Sunday's presidential election.
This weekend, voters will have a choice between re-electing the president to a third six-year term, or unseating the socialist leader by voting in opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, a former state governor and right-leaning member of the centrist Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition.
Chavez, 59, as the longtime incumbent with strong support among the poor and working-class majority and backed by state media and resources, is favored to win. But Capriles, 40, has been gaining traction by avoiding ideological posturing, pinning Venezuela’s rampant crime problem to Chavez’s domestic policies, and painting a picture of upward mobility into the middle class in an economy he says would be rejuvenated by private and foreign investment.
Chavez, meanwhile, has stood by the socialist policies of his so-called Bolivarian Revolution, keeping major industries under state control, expanding social welfare programs and building economic and political ties with other leftist governments in Latin America to oppose U.S. influence.
Sunday’s vote will be a test of whether Venezuelans believe the revolution needs more time or that its time is up.
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World-Topping Murder Rate
One of the issues that might convince them of the latter option is crime. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with homicides increasing 30 percent from 13,000 in 2010 to more than 19,000 in 2011, according to a non-governmental organization, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
Kidnappings and armed robberies have become common occurrences. The government has not published crime statistics since 2004. External observers say the majority of these crimes go unreported and more importantly, unsolved.
The violence is largely attributed to criminal gangs and drug traffickers that operate with impunity, amid the fragmentation and underdevelopment of the country’s security forces.
The Chavez government established a federal police force only in 2009, and local law enforcement and court systems have been debilitated by politicization favoring professed Chavistas, which has fostered corruption and nepotism in lieu of accountability and meritocracy, said Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, which analyzes organized crime in Latin America.
"Under Chavez, security on all fronts has worsened," said McDermott.
The crime problem penetrates through most strata of Venezuelan society, from the poor and working class whose family members are often caught in the crossfire between rival gangs to the middle class who are targeted for robberies and kidnappings.
As if to underscore the problem, three activists supporting Capriles were shot dead last week; the perpetrators remain at large.
"Yesterday, sadly, violence took three lives, something that should never have happened," Capriles said at a rally in Caracas, the capital, a day after the shootings, Reuters reported.
"I want to tell their families, and those angels in heaven, that we are going to defeat violence on the 7th of October."
Chavez responded to the killings by downplaying them as an isolated incident and warned against politicizing them.
“It's not with violence that we face off. It's with votes, ideas, peace, so let's not fall into provocations," Chavez said, according to Reuters.
¡Es la Economía, Estúpido!
Then there's the economy. Venezuela’s state-controlled system has been battling high inflation and a stubborn unemployment rate. Capriles is pouncing on this to make his case for opening up the economy. Without making an ideological case, he is trying to appeal to the everyday needs and concerns of Venezuelans.
“I want you to think about your problems, and think: Has the government brought solutions to your problems?” Capriles asked supporters in Caracas last week, the New York Times reported.
The crowd responded with an exclamatory, “No!”
Capriles has been careful not to attack Chavez’s vastly popular social welfare programs, instead pointing out high prices caused by an inflation rate that currently stands at just below 20 percent -- though it has come down significantly from around 27 percent at the start of the year -- and the lack of jobs as unemployment remains steady at close to 8 percent.
Capriles has argued that opening up the economy to private competition and foreign investment would help stabilize it, citing neighbors Brazil and Colombia as examples.
The Venezuelan economy is heavily dependent on its nationalized oil industry, which accounts for roughly 40 percent of government revenues. It's the country’s most important industry, with more than 100,000 employees, and Capriles has avoided talk of privatization, focusing instead on allowing joint ventures with foreign investors.
He has also emphasized the need to diversify the economy to protect it against volatility in global oil markets, indicating that he would privatize the tourism, agriculture and manufacturing sectors.
Capriles has said his polices will bring down inflation, increase the growth of gross domestic product to 6 percent annually, and create 500,000 new jobs every year in an appeal to the poor and working class seeking to move into middle class.
Under Chavez, GDP rose 4.2 percent in 2011, following an increase in government spending after two years of contraction.
Government spending is one the factors that has earned Chavez a large amount of credit with the country's poorer voters. His commitment to investing the country’s vast oil wealth in social welfare programs has brought millions out of poverty, and he also expanded education and health care for those who need it most. Capriles will face deeply entrenched support for Chavez’s political philosophy, which has delivered on many of its promises, though large problems remain.
The X Factors
Polling in Venezuela has a reputation for being widely divergent. Some show Capriles trailing Chavez by a wide margin, while others show him leading by a narrow one, with the amount of undecided voters ranging between 5 and 15 percent.
The country’s two most reputable polling firms, Datanalisis and Consultores 21, represent these two ends of the spectrum.
Datanalisis shows Chavez leading by a 10 percent margin, 47 percent to 37 percent, while Consultores 21 shows Capriles leading Chavez by four points, 49.9 percent to 45.7 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The perception of political bias of the pollsters and fear of potential retribution by the state for supporting the opposition are likely factors in the wide variance of these polls, but the fact remains that Capriles is closer to beating Chavez than any other opposition candidate has been in the past.
To add to the uncertainty, Chavez has been battling an unspecified form of cancer for over a year, and the state of his health remains a mystery. While he has appeared in public demonstrating himself fit to run for office, questions remain about whether he would be able to finish another term and, given that he has no clear successor, who would take his place.
A Capriles victory is not likely to go over smoothly, either. Chavez has fanatical support among paramilitary groups that would be unlikely to accept new leadership, and the country could find itself in the midst of an armed rebellion.
To be sure, the odds are in Chavez’s favor. But that things have gotten this close should be a strong indication that Venezuela is facing profound change.