November 28, 2006
(Venezuelan law prohibits the dissemination of polls in the week prior to the presidential election. This article is for publication outside of Venezuela)
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov 28 (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez's grip on vital Venezuelan institutions stacks the odds against his rival dislodging the anti-U.S. incumbent in Sunday's election.
Chavez, who has 100 percent support in congress and has filled the Supreme Court with his sympathizers, boasts organizations such as the military and the giant state oil firm are "red, really red," devoted to his socialist platform. Chavez said Venezuelan voters who reject the self-styled revolution that he expects to keep him in power for decades should not work in these bodies -- or others such as the tax agency or foreign service.
Many in the opposition complain Venezuela 's election authority is pro-Chavez. But even one of its top officials denounced the race as lopsided because the incumbent has mobilized massive government resources to boost his campaign.
"There has been clear asymmetry in the campaign. A brutal imbalance, with the open participation of state officials helping Hugo Chavez," Vicente Diaz, a director of the National Electoral Council and government critic, told the El Nacional opposition daily.
Polls generally show Chavez heading to a clear election win over Manuel Rosales on the back of his wage increases and spending on schools and clinics from an oil export bonanza. He remains popular among the majority poor, even though two out of every three Venezuelans believe the former army officer known as "El Comandante" is authoritarian, an AP-Ipsos poll showed last week.
The opposition accuses him of aiming to impose Cuban-style communism in Venezuela . The United States says the man who routinely calls President George W. Bush the devil is a threat to democracy.
But Chavez supporters defend the top-to-bottom restructuring of public institutions as a necessary part of his "revolution" to overhaul what they call an entrenched and corrupt oligarchy.
CHE, CHAVEZ AND COUP D'ETAT
The state oil company's Caracas headquarters is decked out with images of Chavez's revolutionary idol -- Che Guevara -- and critics say the firm's vehicles have become advertisements on wheels for the campaign of the pro-Cuba president.
The military leadership has refused to meet with his challenger, the governor of a western oil province who has united Venezuela 's fragmented opposition.
Chavez critics say his opponents could be scared away from voting booths by a massive planned deployment of troops, whose task is to keep order and ferry ballot boxes to counting centers. The president has also warned he will use the military to put down any post-vote unrest. He accuses the opposition of planning to claim fraud and call supporters onto the streets in an effort to stoke a coup.
Chavez's government insists it needs to keep the army and oil industry "red" for reasons of national security after a failed military coup against Chavez in 2002 was followed by an oil strike that almost crippled the country. Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said stopping the repeat of such disloyalty in the OPEC heavyweight meant hounding out Chavez opponents from the sector with a "thumping."
RED, BLUE OR PURPLE
Political analysts reckon state institutions are more loyal to Chavez's oil-driven handouts than his socialist ideology.
Rosales, who has brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Caracas in his political color of blue, said similar Chavez rallies are packed with humiliated state workers who are obliged to attend.
Some state employees acknowledge, when granted anonymity, they feel they have to make a show of supporting Chavez by wearing red.
There is an opposition joke that resonates with them: "What's blue on the inside and red on the outside? Answer -- a public sector worker."
Rosales, who draws his main support from the upper- and middle-classes, says his own polling shows he will win. If he does pull off a shock victory, he plans to call a parliamentary election to stop the National Assembly blocking all his legislation.
Rosales also believes he can cut the key institutions free from Chavez's increasingly pervasive influence. "We have to turn (state oil company) PDVSA into a strong institution from the partisan institution it is today, politicized and hijacked by the government," he said.
Leopoldo Lopez, a spokesman for the Rosales campaign also said the armed forces were not a pro-Chavez body. "They belong to all of Venezuela ," he said.
But despite opposition confidence about the election and the chances of reversing Chavez's influence over the bureaucracy, some analysts are doubtful about their prospects.
"Chavez is the favorite to win the election given his vast control over the government's financial and logistical resources and influence over key institutions," Alberto Ramos, a senior economist at Goldman Sachs, wrote in a research note.