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Ghost of Chavez weighs on Venezuela presidential vote

Photo: AFP

Venezuela’s acting president, Nicolas Maduro, is expected to win elections in the South American country on Sunday after leading a campaign devoted to the memory of his predecessor, late president Hugo Chavez.


Acting President Nicolas Maduro appears poised to win elections in Venezuela on Sunday, as he and rival Enrique Capriles close a lightning 10-day campaign.

Opinion polls show Maduro, the late president Hugo Chavez’ hand-picked heir, enjoying a lead of 10-20% points over Capriles, the former governor of the state of Miranda.

Trusted Venezuelan pollster Datanalisis said Maduro was on pace to win 55% of votes against 45% for Capriles, according to its most recent survey. “It’s obvious that Maduro’s campaign is weaker now than it was at the beginning…but not weak enough,” Datanalisis president Luis Vicente Leon said via Twitter on Friday.

Analysts said Maduro would owe his likely victory to the wide popularity of Chavez, who died of cancer on March 5.

Maduro focused his presidential bid almost exclusively to the memory and religious-like veneration of the late “Comandante”, pledging to push ahead with his Socialist policies in the oil-rich country.

“Since he received Chavez’ “blessing”, the acting president has enjoyed a tide of sympathy,” Pascal Drouhaud, a Latin America specialist working with the French-based industrial group Alstom, told FRANCE 24.

Maduro’s message of loyalty and continuity has struck a chord with many voters. “Chavez forged the government and then handed it over to Nicolas Maduro, and that means Maduro is the best. I know he will take care of Venezuela and we are behind him,” Victor Leibo, an adamant “Chavista”, or Chavez supporter, told AFP this week.

Lack of charisma

Venezuela’s foreign minister from 2006 – 2012, Maduro has been one of the most visible faces of Chavez’ PSUV party for years. But he was thrust to the forefront of a national drama in December when Chavez suddenly flew to Cuba for medical treatment.

As he left the country, Chavez urged Venezuelans to pick Maduro as his successor if he became incapacitated. Chavez returned home in February, but never regained his health. Maduro led massive rallies where thousands of supporters prayed for Chavez’ recovery. He then presided over a grandiose state funeral to mourn the deceased president.


But some voters – even Chavistas – said they were not ready to throw their support blindly behind Maduro, however close he was to the late president. “He does not have Chavez’ experience,” Guido Moguea, a fruit vendor, told AFP. “Chavez was a natural leader, but Maduro still doesn’t know how to lead.”

Besides placing Chavez at the centre of his campaign, Maduro also strived to adopt his fiery, sometimes theatrical, style. With familiar “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, he expelled two US diplomats on April 6 in connection to an alleged plot to assassinate him.

During a televised appearance on April 2, he claimed Chavez had come to him in the form of a bird to convey support. Later, speaking at a campaign rally, he warned that people who voted for Capriles would be struck by an ancient indigenous curse.

“Similar pronouncements by Chavez were enchanting, but they just seem ridiculous coming from Maduro,” said Stephen Launay, a professor at Paris-Est University and the author of a book on Chavez. “[Maduro] knows that if he wins this election it will be thanks to Chavez, not his own charisma.”

Capriles consolidates leadership

While Capriles is expected to lose his second presidential election in six months this weekend (he ran against Chavez in an October 2012 poll), observers said he would at least then be the uncontested leader of Venezuela’s opposition.

On his Twitter account, Datanalisis’ Leon said Capriles, who represents the centre-right Democratic Unity Table coalition, had reinvigorated an opposition that was completely unenthusiastic at the start of the campaign.

“Whether he wins or loses, Capriles has succeeded in his epic battle of sacrifice and clinches the leadership of his group moving toward the future,” Leon said.

Indeed, Capriles was able to stage massive rallies in which he blasted Maduro as a “lazy” politician who lacked his own vision for Venezuela. He also repeated accusations the acting president was the puppet of the Castro brothers in Communist Cuba.

Analysts say that if Maduro wins he will not enjoy a long grace period and must quickly prove he can do more than invoke Chavez’ past glories. “He will have to manage a delicate balance between Chavimo and a new post-Chavez Venezuela,” said Drouhaud.


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