Hugo Chávez does not seem at all nervous in the final stretch of the campaign for the elections in which, on October 7, he expects to confirm his fourth mandate as president of Venezuela. With little less than two weeks to go before election day, the opinion polls generally show him as the winner — albeit with differing figures.
Yet Chávez continues to ramp up his rhetoric, including unacceptable threats of the probable outbreak of a “civil war” if he loses. He knows that the strategy of raising tension to the maximum, and fanning fears of instability, work in his favor, because it mobilizes his followers and strikes fear into his detractors.
This is a campaign with a high degree of political polarization, and it is a campaign centered on personalities. Running against Chávez is the young and energetic Henrique Capriles, at the head of an opposition that already challenged Chávez’s parliamentary majority in 2010. Yet the confrontation between their respective electoral programs is not so drastic.
Capriles and his Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD), as he himself explains, occupy a “leftward-looking” position, though he believes that traditional ideological debate is a thing of the past, and on matters of public healthcare, food, education, housing and the struggle against poverty prefers to speak of “strong social programs, without political blackmail.”
It seems as if Chávez, who has enjoyed the benefit of abundant resources — ranging from oil revenues to the extensive expropriation of land — will not be electorally penalized, after 13 years in power, for his disastrous management of the economy, nor for a disturbing wave of violent crime that is spiraling out of control. Nor have his personal health problems adversely affected his performance: he is still a formidable electoral campaigner, with a populist but highly effective oratory.
In spite of all this, the president has been seen to be vulnerable. And everyone is now aware of this in Venezuela. The opposition is aware of it, of course, as well as the Chávez party in general and, in particular, those around him. Though the Venezuelan leader is proposing to govern until 2019, there is a great likelihood that this will be the former lieutenant-colonel’s last election.
Even if he wins on October 7, the question that immediately arises is: what will happen afterward? Chávez has been threatening instability. But Venezuela has to escape from this friend-enemy duality, and the crossfire of accusations of which side is plotting a coup d’état against the other, to build a functioning democracy for tomorrow. The handling of whatever result emerges from the elections must help to achieve this end, and help Venezuela get past a polarization that cannot help the country to cope with its problems.