(CNSNews.com) – Venezuelans are a week away from the country’s most crucial election in decades – the choice between another six years of the long-established populist president who has placed their country firmly in the anti-U.S., pro-Iran camp -- and a candidate offering the best chance yet to unseat him.
Few Latin America analysts are predicting a defeat for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who during his 14 years in power has used the country’s oil revenues to secure the support of millions of poor – more than a quarter of the population – by extending social programs as part of his vision of “21st century socialism.”
His chances of re-election on October 7 may be further boosted by a climate of indirect intimidation: His defense minister has hinted that the armed forces would not accept his defeat and Chavez himself has suggested that the masses who support him would not either, warning during the campaign of civil war if a right-wing candidate wins and ends social reforms.
He has also restricted free media while monopolizing official outlets, and after the last election enacted laws limiting foreign election monitoring. Some critics warn of the dangers of a rigged poll.
Armed with those advantages, Chavez still faces a tough challenge from Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 40-year-old former state governor who won a primary last February to become the main opposition candidate. (There are several other minor hopefuls.)
Polling data has been inconsistent, with some predicting an easy Chavez win while others foresee a much tighter contest between him and his main rival.
For his part Chavez has painted his victory as a dead certainty. On state television Sunday he said that after his win and what he called the probable success of President Obama in November, he hoped for a new era of “normal relations” with the U.S.
Capriles has campaigned on a platform of pursuing business-friendly policies while making social programs more sustainable. He reiterated last week that he would emulate the Brazilian model, “which combines the public and the private sectors with social responsibility.”
Capriles, a devout Catholic, is the grandson of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who migrated to Venezuela from Poland. The Chavez camp, borrowing the rhetoric of his ally Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has sought to smear him by associating him with “Zionism.”
Capriles drew a large crowd of enthusiastic supporters in downtown Caracas on Sunday – the Associated Press said it “appeared to surpass 100,000 people” – one day after three opposition activists were shot dead by suspected Chavez supporters in western Venezuela.
Chavez, 58, has been in power since 1999 and was re-elected in 2006. His term was due to have expired in 2013 but in 2009 he won a referendum allowing him to change the Venezuelan constitution to end presidential term limits.
The move paved the way for him to run again this year, and to remain president for as long as he can win elections and his health allows. Chavez has been receiving treatment for cancer.
Next Sunday’s elections “represent a strategic crossroads in Latin America” and Venezuela’s 18 million voters face a clear choice, Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Ray Walser wrote in a recent article.
“Venezuelans must choose between further descent into authoritarianism, archaic socialism, and official anti-Americanism and a return to representative democracy, adherence to free-market principles, and recovery of the rule of law and transparency, as well as improved relations with the U.S.,” he said.
“For the opposition, October 7 may represent the last stand against Chavez’s tightening authoritarian noose.”
Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow and director of its Americas Program Stephen Johnson argues in a new report that the deck is stacked against even the strongest Chavez opponent.
“[L]oyalists feel their entitlements are at stake, voter registry and technical manipulations could help turn out a Chavez victory if balloting is close, the president has a resource monopoly in all key aspects of the campaign, and threats of violence by Chavez supporters may dissuade independents and opposition voters from coming to the polls,” he said.
Still, Johnson said an alternative, although unlikely scenario could see Chavez’ base shrink sufficiently to cost him the election, due to unhappiness over corruption and unfulfilled social pledges. He recalled that frustrated voters chose Chavez – then a political outsider – back in 1998.
“Now if sentiments are strong enough to overcome the constraints the president has placed on his competition, they could also take him out,” he wrote.
Chavez, a former paratrooper commander, prides himself as the developing world’s most vocal critic of what he calls the U.S. “empire,” steering a group of like-minded leaders in Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador.
An ally of Muammar Gadaffi before the Libyan dictator’s death, Chavez also formed especially close ties with Iran, boosting economic and military links at a time when the U.S. has been leading efforts to isolate Tehran over its suspect nuclear programs.