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Analysts: Chavez Faces Political Test in September Elections

  • Michael Bowman

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's near-monopoly on political power will be tested during next month's elections for the national assembly. Currently, all but a few legislators are loyal to Mr. Chavez. Public opinion polls show the socialist president's popularity slipping amid tough economic times and soaring crime rates. Mr. Chavez has significant political and institutional advantages over the opposition as campaigns heat up ahead of the September 26 vote.

Perhaps the most-polarizing figure in South America, Hugo Chavez elicits strong responses wherever his name is mentioned.

This Caracas resident says she voted for Mr. Chavez in 1998, but will never do so again.

"I voted for him because he was young and came from humble beginnings," she said. "And I thought he would move the country forward. I think this government is the worst. And if they want to arrest me for saying so, let them do it. Bad, bad, bad!"

The biggest complaints: inflation, unemployment, food shortages and rampant crime.

In a poorer part of Caracas, where government money has brought social services and development projects, a disabled retiree has a different perspective.

"My family and I survive give thanks to the president. As long as he is there, I will vote. As long as I can get on my feet to cast a ballot, I will support my president," she said.

Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente Leon says Mr. Chavez's public approval rating has dropped from 65 percent a few years ago to 45 percent today.

"Forty-five percent approval - you could call that stellar, even spectacular, if you consider that this is a president who has been in power for 11 years and has yet to solve the nation's biggest problems," said Leon.

Hoping to capitalize on the president's sagging ratings is Julio Borges, who heads the opposition party Primero Justicia.

"In Venezuela, we do not have good or bad governments - just governments in power during high oil prices or low oil prices. And President Chavez's popularity has followed this pattern," noted Borges.

But the president speaks as confidently as ever. Mr. Chavez is in full campaign mode, lashing out at his opponents.

"It would be a catastrophe if our country fell back into the hands of the thieves who governed before and destroyed it. They would destroy all we have achieved, and ruin the country once more," said Chavez.

According to pollster Luis Vicente Leon, the president has significant campaign advantages, including vast oil revenues that can be deployed as he sees fit.

"The opposition battles Chavez from a position of extreme weakness," explained Leon. "This is not a conventional democracy, where the rights of political minorities are respected, where public resources are kept separate from political campaigns. The president's political party has all the government's money at its disposal."

After more than 11 years in office, Hugo Chavez is the only president many younger Venezuelans, including Leslie Contreras, 26, can remember.

"From my teenage years until now, I have only known Chavez. The opposition does not know how to lead, how to speak to the people," she said.

Polling data show that increasing numbers of Venezuelans are unhappy with the country's polarized political climate. Referred to as "Ni, Ni" or "Neither, Nor," they hold the president and the opposition in contempt. Whether and how they vote could determine the outcome of next month's legislative elections, and whether Mr. Chavez's dominance of Venezuela's political landscape continues.