Venezuelans Expected to Whittle Away at Chávez's Power

Observers see growing disenchantment, even among the poor, with Hugo Chávez. "He's very worried about this, and the opposition is reasonably optimistic," says Demetrio Boersner, a history professor and former diplomat. Voting is scheduled for Sunday.
Observers see growing disenchantment, even among the poor, with Hugo Chávez. "He's very worried about this, and the opposition is reasonably optimistic," says Demetrio Boersner, a history professor and former diplomat. Voting is scheduled for Sunday. (By Ariana Cubillos -- Associated Press)

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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 21, 2008

SUCRE, Venezuela -- In campaign slogs through Venezuela's biggest slum, Carlos Ocariz seeks out those who worship President Hugo Chávez. He then urges them to abandon "El Comandante" and throw their support behind him in the mayoral race for Sucre -- a down-at-the-heels district of Caracas that was once fertile political ground for Chávez.

In this area, home to 1.5 million people, Ocariz is polling ahead of the government's handpicked candidate, Jesse Chacón, in the countdown to Sunday's elections for mayors and governors across this oil-rich nation.

That Ocariz, a 37-year-old civil engineer who once worked for the Inter-American Development Bank, might win the top spot in this gritty swath underscores the challenge Chávez faces to his once-ironclad hold on political power and his aspirations to remain in office beyond his current term.

"Here the government has had it all -- the mayor's seat, the state governorship, the ministries, the congress," Ocariz said, stopping for a moment as he climbed a steep, narrow street. "Everything belongs to Chávez, and the municipality is worse off. People live worse than before, and that is why they are looking for change."

In 2004, the government won 21 of 23 governorships and most of the mayoral posts. Chávez allies later won control of the National Assembly, after an opposition boycott of elections handed the body to the government. And the presidency pulls the strings of power in practically all state institutions, from the Central Bank to the chief prosecutor's office.

Now the opposition, along with former Chávez loyalists who broke with the president, may win control of half a dozen states or more, pollsters and political analysts say. The president's allies are expected to still wield power, particularly after his government disqualified promising candidates who would have won the Caracas city hall and key governorships.

But possible opposition victories in places such as Sucre, which had been run by the son of a prominent Chávez ally, would be symbolic blows against the president's United Socialist Party. A strong showing by his allies, political analysts say, will embolden Chávez to move ahead with plans to change the constitution and permit him to seek a third six-year term in 2012.

"There's undoubtedly growing disenchantment, even on the part of poor people of Venezuela who originally felt Chávez was their man and defended their interests," said Demetrio Boersner, a history professor and former Venezuelan diplomat. "He's very worried about this, and the opposition is reasonably optimistic."

Chávez has cast the elections for 22 governors (one state, Amazonas, will not hold a gubernatorial election) and 328 municipalities as a referendum on his policies. That tactic has worked in the past for Chávez, whose popularity remains high, at nearly 60 percent, according to the polling firm Datanalisis.

"What's at stake here is the future of the revolution, of socialism, of Venezuela, of the government and the future of Hugo Chávez himself," Chávez said recently.

Such talk has resonated with people like Yureima Cova, who gushed about the president and said she will vote for Chacón. "If you support Chávez, you support his candidates, just his candidates," said Cova, 29.

Last December, voters dealt the president his first electoral defeat by voting against a constitutional reform that would have expanded his power. Among the districts that turned against Chávez in the referendum was Petare, the slum here in Sucre that Ocariz needs to capture if he wants to become mayor.


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