Venezuela will hold elections, once again, on April 14th. It is the oil-rich nation's third election in six months, and this time the purpose is to replace Hugo Chávez, the deceased strongman who ran Venezuela for the past 14 years.
The winner of these elections will be taking over a country that saw a significant drop in poverty under Chávez, due to generous social programs funded with oil money. But he will also take over a country saddled with excessive debt, electricity shortages, high crime rates, rampant inflation and a tremendous dependence on oil revenues, as oil currently accounts for 90 percent of the country's exports.
The differences between the candidates are quite extreme, as you will see below. One candidate, Nicolas Maduro, is Chávez's hand-picked successor, while the other, Henrique Capriles, represents the opposition to the current government. And the election outcome will likely resonate beyond Venezuela's borders as it could determine whether Venezuela continues to back socialist governments throughout Latin America, or whether it withdraws its support, changes its aggressive tone towards the U.S. and makes it easier for private companies -- both foreign and domestic -- to do business in the country.
Polls suggest that Maduro is most likely to win, as he has led Capriles by 10 to 20 percentage points in most polls published during the first week of April. But opposition leaders argue that these polls are using data gathered at the end of March, when Maduro was still basking in sympathy for the death of Chavez. The opposition argues that their candidate is quickly catching up to Maduro as he stages packed rallies around the country.
Here's a rundown of the two main candidates:
Maduro, 50, is a former bus driver and trade unionist who rose quickly through the political ranks during Chávez's tenure. He was Chávez's foreign minister for six years, and became Venezuela's interim president after Chávez's death in March.
Most analysts argue that Maduro's main "strength" is his endorsement by the popular Chávez, who in his last ever nationally televised address asked people to back Maduro if he could not stay in power himself. As the interim president of Venezuela, Maduro also has at his disposal state slush funds, an extremely efficient get-out-the-vote operation and virtually unlimited airtime on state-owned media as he campaigns for the presidency.
As a loyal Chavista, Maduro has backed nationalization of private firms in sectors like food and telecom and has expressed his support for social programs that provide free housing, healthcare and education to poor Venezuelans. He also wants to go ahead with a plan to create socialist communes that would get direct funding from the federal government. State and local governments would be forced to divert some of their resources to the communes, which could take over functions like running social programs and educational initiatives. The communes would also run their own courts. Critics say that would undermine the authority of local governments, which are popularly elected, and serve as a way for the president to grab more power at the local level.