May 23, 2013
Mood swings in the historic Chávez vote
With just 17 days to go until Venezuela’s elections, the opinion poll war is heating up but also coming clean (or cleaner) — official surveys have slightly scaled down the margin of President Hugo Chávez’s lead over his challenger Henrique Capriles while “independent” polls even give an edge to the opposition candidate. With only one sure figure in this maelstrom — the electorate of 18,903,143 Venezuelans — what are the latest mood swings and changes of perception among the people?
This is the first time since Chávez reached power in the 1998 elections that he “faces a scenario in which he could lose,” Luis Christiansen, the director of Consultores 21 (pollsters not linked to Chávez) cautiously ventures.
And above all in the C, D and E income categories, which represent not only 70 percent of the population but the historic vote for Chávez.
“In the last few months a contradictory phenomenon has unfolded in the slums — while the government splashes out ever larger sums to social handouts and the lower classes, various mass consumption items (such as soft drinks, cleaning products and toiletries) have slumped alarmingly,” the sociologist and journalist Jesús Torrealba, who covers the poorest neighbourhoods of the country for his programme El radar de los barrios (slum radar), tells the Herald from Caracas.
This failure of the campaign slush funds to reach the pro-Chávez sectors has a simple explanation. For Torrealba, “these funds, meant to reinforce the social aid in the climax of the campaign, are entangled in the midst of a corrupt structure, with no control whatsoever due to the emergency legislation, and so this money disappears halfway before reaching its intended beneficiaries.”
At the same time the Comando Venezuela campaign teams of Henrique Capriles have moved into the vacuum: “The opposition moves at ease in areas where six months ago there was no room for anything but the government’s social aid programmes,” he says.
How do they do it? With activism and the help of former comrades of Chávez. According to Torrealba, there is a shift underway in the ranks of the “less militant sectors favouring the president — whereas before they believed in “San Chávez,” they are now lukewarm towards the Bolivarian promises and are veering towards the activism of Capriles.
“That’s the big change — for the first time an opposition candidate has been able to campaign in the 300 parishes of inner Venezuela where only a few months ago only Chávez had a foot in the door,” he adds.
So is the Chávez rhetoric (or “narrative,” to use the Argentine term) being transferred to and/or being co-opted by the opposition?
“In 1998, Hugo Chávez could connect with the electorate via the deep, dark pit of a highly justified popular resentment,” explains Torrealba, for whom today’s society, after 13 years of Bolivarian rule, again faces a milestone in the “renewal of expectations.”
And that’s where Capriles comes in — without being a professional orator or enjoying the charisma of Chávez, “he knows how to transmit his future of truth and yearning for a straight deal, with the eradication of corruption.”
“Today Capriles has a hot line to hope, which is the most addictive of all drugs and which Chávez has known how to embody since 1998,” he concludes.
But not everything is rosy in the colonization of this hitherto Bolivarian crimson territory of the slum neighbourhoods. The clock is ticking against the opposition’s battle. “The opposition has been campaigning for the last 11 months whereas the Chávez camp has had 13 years to nail down votes on a daily basis”, says Torrealba.
At the other side of the ringside, the candidate Hugo Chávez has to face at every turn his own worst enemy — President Hugo Chávez, with everything he has promised and failed to do.
That is why in the last lap of the campaign “he is trying to be the candidate of self-criticism, something which arouses the suspicions of his own people, as well as showing him devoid of charm and disconnected from his usual political flair,” says Torrealba.
That is why, for this sociologist who knows the slums so well, the October 7 vote could be “anybody’s race.”