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.
Pollsters say the opposition is poised to increase its hold on the oil-rich state of Zulia, with outgoing Gov. Manuel Rosales taking the mayor's post in Maracaibo, a major city.
The opposition is also making a strong showing in the western state of Tachira and in the northern industrial state of Carabobo. There, a Chávez foe, Henrique Salas Feo, is expected to best Chávez's candidate, Mario Silva, a television shock jock who specializes in lambasting government opponents.
The president's foes are also making the election competitive in Miranda, where Caracas is located. Further complicating the panorama for the president are dissidents from his movement who may win in other states, including Barinas, where the president's brother, Adán Chávez, is facing a spirited challenge for the governorship.
Analysts say the president has been campaigning hard in such places as Zulia and in Caracas for government allies who not long ago would have won easily. He is largely ignoring issues such as crime and inflation -- among the most serious concerns of Venezuelans -- and instead is attacking his foes as traitors and lapdogs of the Bush administration.
Chávez has said he will order tanks into the streets of Carabobo to protect victories by his allies and arrest Rosales, who ran a failed campaign for the presidency in 2006, on corruption charges. Chávez also threatened to shutter television stations that broadcast early election results. He even called the politicians who broke with him "filthy traitors."
"He that betrays Chávez will die politically," the president thundered in a recent speech. "He who betrays me betrays the people."
Rosales said the president has whipped his followers into a frenzy by characterizing a vote for the opposition as a vote for the rich. "Chávez's strategy and discourse is one of violence, threats and insults to create panic in the population, which benefit him and his party," Rosales said.
But chipping away at Chávez's popularity, his foes concede, is not easy.
For all the bombast, poverty levels in Venezuela since 1999 have dropped from 53.3 percent to 37.7 percent, if measured through household income, said Pedro España, director of the Institute of Economic and Social Investigations at Andres Bello Catholic University.
Here in Petare, at a rally for Jesse Chacón, residents came out in force this week to show their support.
Donnal Perez, a die-hard supporter decked out in government red, reeled off the benefits of the Chávez administration, including free health care and subsidized food.
She noted that the government in recent weeks has showered poor neighborhoods with free appliances and other household items.
"My family has received them, and in my community just this Sunday, people who are very poor got four or five things," she said. "Refrigerators, washing machines, mattresses, beds, fans."
Betty Diaz, a resident of Petare, has not been impressed. Six months ago, her son was killed in the street, another victim in a crime wave that has shaken residents of barrios like this one.
"The people have taken note that they are being used," she said. "It is all business. You vote for me, you get a bag of food. People are tired of it."
Ocariz said he is mining the support of people such as Diaz. He said an increasing number of voters in Petare feel the need to switch from the government party to him because of concern over gritty neighborhood issues, including rising crime and the lack of garbage collection.
"The services here are getting worse, and so people's hopes have been dashed," Ocariz said.
"Our challenge is to change the quality of life here. This is not a presidential election. This is an election for mayors and governors."