Venezuela is holding presidential elections on Sunday, October 7. Latin American leaders, oil investors and international news junkies might find themselves glued to computer screens and TV sets, rooting for President Hugo Chávez or perhaps hoping that he fails to hold on to another six-year term.
There is much at stake in these elections. Venezuelans will pick between two candidates who have radically different views on basic concepts like democracy and freedom of speech. As in every Venezuelan presidential election, the winner also gets to manage one of the world's largest oil reserves. The outcome of these elections will also have a direct impact on countries that are large recipients of Venezuelan aid, such as Cuba and Nicaragua. Countries that have tried to cooperate with Venezuela in security matters, such as Colombia, and the United States, will also closely monitor developments in the tropical country. Here's our guide to the Venezuelan elections:
The Candidates Hugo Chávez, the charismatic President, has been in office since 1999, and is now running for an unprecedented third term in office.
As President of Venezuela, Chávez controls the world's largest oil reserves, he spends generously on social programs that are important to poor Venezuelans, and has said that he wants to turn Venezuela into a socialist state, where communes and state-owned enterprises play an ever-larger role.
But Chávez, who has crushed his opponents in the past two presidential contests -- winning by 15 to 20 points -- faces his toughest opposition thus far.
It comes in the form of a 40-year-old state governor who claims that he represents neither the left nor the right, and compares himself to David, the biblical character, fighting against Goliath, i.e. Chávez.
Henrique Capriles envisions Venezuela as a market economy with strong social programs, modeled after Brazil. He points out that under the watch of Hugo Chávez, productivity has stalled in the country, which relies heavily on food imports. Crime has also skyrocketed in Venezuela, where the homicide rate of 49 murders per 100,000 residents, is two and a half time higher than the murder rate in Mexico.
Capriles trailed Chávez by just two points in a survey published on September 25th by the Varianzas polling agency. A poll by Consultores 21, published on that same week, put Capriles ahead of Chávez by 3 percentage points, while other polls put him 10 to 15 points behind the socialist leader.
It's hard to know which polling firm to trust, but from what you can observe in the streets of Caracas, this race seems to be much closer than any presidential contest held in Venezuela in the past 15 years, with both candidates drawing massive crowds as they tour the country in the final days of their campaign.
A Socialist Democracy?
Opponents of Chávez say the Venezuelan president is autocratic, with some even calling him a dictator.
They point out that Chávez had the country's constitution changed so that he can be re-elected an unlimited number of times. The president has also expanded the number of judges on the Supreme Court and packed it with his supporters, while promoting laws that give him greater control over the state-owned oil company PDVSA.