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Moment of truth for Chavez as Venezuela votes

Text by Joseph BAMAT , Ségolène ALLEMANDOU

Latest update : 2012-10-07

After 13 years in power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) faces his toughest test yet in Sunday's presidential ballot. Centre-right newcomer Henrique Capriles (right) has adopted much of his populist rival's style in a bid to unseat him.

Supporters of Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski are hoping that President Hugo Chavez’s days in power are numbered. As the election clock ticks ever closer, Chavez is facing his most serious political challenger in over a dozen years.

Radio France International correspondent Pierre-Philippe Berson said the opposition was “as confident as ever” when it came out to hear Capriles speak at a “massive rally under a blazing sun” in downtown Caracas, the capital city, on September 29.

“It was a show of force that has raised the hopes of the anti-Chavez groups,” Berson noted. Tens of thousand of Capriles supporters filled the length of Bolivar Avenue at the close of a marathon campaign that has seen both political camps mount huge rallies.

Chavez's rivals have also been bolstered by recent opinion polls which suggest the two candidates could be running neck-and-neck in the final week before the presidential poll.

Until recently, Capriles, 40, and the coalition of some 30 opposition parties he represents, were lagging a distant second in opinion surveys. Rival polling agencies have shown wide discrepancies in their forecasts, but all show that Capriles has considerably narrowed the gap with Chavez.

The winner of Sunday’s election will start a new six-year presidential mandate in January 2013.

The making of an opposition hero

Capriles, a trained lawyer from a wealthy Caracas family and a former governor of the state of Miranda, was largely unknown within and outside of the South American country before this year’s campaign.

He won Venezuela’s first-ever presidential primary in February and has skyrocketed to prominence at the helm of a broad centre-right coalition that put all differences aside in the single-minded goal of unseating Chavez.

The Venezuelan president, who has championed myriad programs for the country’s poor since he came to power and who has promised to deepen his Socialist revolution if he wins, has not hesitated to blast his rival as an agent of imperialism and a “low-life pig”.

Capriles has defended himself from accusations that he would destroy popular social programs and reverse Chavez’s push to nationalise key industries. The young politician prefers to present himself as the advocate of a centre-left model similar to the one embraced by Brazil’s former president Ignacio “Lula” da Silva.

However, Lula has publicly backed Chavez’s re-election bid, recording a video in which he tells the Venezuelan leader “your victory will be our victory.”

Embracing ‘chavismo’

While Capriles is trying to capitalise on growing dissatisfaction among voters after 13 years of “chavismo”, he has ironically adopted much of Chavez’s own charismatic style.

From appearing clad in the bright yellow, blue and red colours of Venezuela’s flag, to door-to-door campaigning in poor neighbourhoods, to focusing his speeches on employment, health and education, Capriles has tried to mould himself as the popular patriot that is traditionally Chavez’s signature.

But there is one ostensive difference between the two candidates: their physical appearance.

Capriles has been careful to cultivate a well-groomed, athletic look that clashes with a pudgy Chavez worn down by cancer treatment.

Chavez has slightly lost his step in the campaign, cutting down on campaign appearances and the once ubiquitous hand-shaking. After two surgeries in Cuba this year to remove a tumor, and chemotherapy treatment that made him lose his hair, the president has admitted to losing some of his past roar.

There has been no better moment for Venezuela’s opposition to defeat Chavez, but Capriles knows not to underestimate a man who has won every electoral contest he's fought since 1999.
 

Date created : 2012-10-03

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