CARACAS -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently jogged into a meeting with socialist youth. He danced to pop music and pretended to play the electric guitar, as a local band played a catchy campaign tune called "Chávez, the Heart of the People."
Such antics (see video above) mark a stark change in style for the 58-year-old former military officer, known for his aggressive speeches against imperialism and for his love of mariachi music.
But Venezuela is holding elections on October 7. And as the campaigns of Chávez and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles wind down, both men are intensifying efforts to connect with young voters through speeches, campaign promises and by adapting their personal style.
Young people are an important segment of the voting population in Venezuela due to their large numbers –4 out of 10 registered voters in this country are between 18 and 34—in the past few years, they have also gained more influence in local politics.
David Smolansky, the 29-year-old youth director for the opposition party, Voluntad Popular, [Popular Will] started to get involved in politics back in 2007, while he was a journalism student at Venezuela's Andres Bello University.
With a group of student leaders from public and private universities, he led massive protests against the government's decision to shut down a TV channel that was highly critical of President Chávez.
"I think young people will participate very actively in these elections," Smolansky told ABC/Univision. "For a while now, young people have assumed a leading role in Venezuelan politics."
The student movement that Smolansky got involved with back in 2007, also spearheaded a campaign that convinced Venezuelan voters to reject changes proposed to the country's constitution by President Chávez. This campaign came during a time in which the traditional leaders of Venezuela's opposition lacked impetus and credibility.
"We handed Chávez his first ever electoral defeat," Smolansky recalls.
Nowadays, student leaders from the 2007 protests hold important posts in opposition parties that back the Capriles campaign. The opposition's presidential candidate is himself only 40-years-old. But socialist youth groups that back President Chavez have also grown in numbers since 2007. And they have attempted to expand from the poor districts or barrios that are the traditional strongholds of the Venezuelan president to middle class sectors that tend to favor opposition parties. Jose Gregorio Rengel, a 24-year-old civil engineer, distributed Chávez pamphlets last Tuesday at a busy intersection in the middle class neighborhood of Chacaíto.
"I think things have improved under this government," Rengel said when asked why he supported another six-year-term for Chávez. "There are great social inequalities that this government has made up for during the first decade of this [socialist] revolution. The government has invested in social programs like education, health and nutrition," Rengel said.
Opponents of Chávez argue that the president's social programs would collapse if the global price of oil fell, as the government derives 40 percent of its budget from oil revenues. They criticize the government for not implementing policies that encourage private sector investment and job creation in the country, which means that the Venezuelan economy largely relies on the government's oil revenues.
But the issue that could weigh the most amongst young voters in this election is the country's high crime rate. "Chávez supporters, independents, and opposition supporters all perceive that crime is the biggest problem in this country," said Rafael Delgado, a sociologist who regularly polls voters on their electoral preferences. "Most voters perceive that this is the problem that has to be toned down, no matter who wins the election," Delgado told ABC/Univision. Venezuela's homicide rate, which is twice as high as that of Mexico, has climbed constantly since Chávez became the country's president. And according to government own figures homicides are the second highest cause of death amongst people aged 15 to 24. Delgado runs the Varianzas polling agency, and he regularly surveys voters on their electoral preferences. In its most recent survey conducted in mid-September, Varianzas found that Capriles had a five percent lead amongst voters aged 18 to 34.
But some young voters say that the crime problem does not deter them from electing President Chávez to another six-year-term. Chávez supporter Ernesto Meléndez manned a red tent with loud speakers and electoral propaganda in a Caracas square. He argued that the media is also to blame for crime because it broadcasts ads for products like cell phones that make poor people feel like they need to get their hands on such items to "feel good about themselves." "It's too easy to blame a country's problems on one person," Meléndez said. "Everyone must be held accountable."