The New York Times
November 03, 2008
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez is stepping up attacks on Venezuela's top opposition politician before tough regional elections this month when government allies could lose some posts.
Chavez last month vowed to jail Manuel Rosales, who lost in the 2006 presidential election but remains governor of Zulia, Venezuela's most populous state and major oil hub. Chavez's administration has threatened to block Rosales running for another office and hurled accusations against him.
Rosales and political analysts say the leftist is using the familiar tactic of firing up supporters against a common enemy before a tight vote.
Pollsters predict the opposition could win a third of the country's governorships on November 23.
Rosales also says Chavez wants to clamp down on the opposition as he weighs another drive to change the constitution to let him stay in office as long as he keeps winning elections -- something voters in the OPEC nation rejected last year.
"This is the start of the democratic removal of Chavez from power ... that's why he's using every possible trick and disproportionate use of state power to win these elections," Rosales told Reuters.
He says Chavez wants to create a Communist state like his mentor ex-Cuban leader Fidel Castro and attacks rivals to distract from serious issues like crime.
In recent weeks, Venezuelan state television has started running repeated attack ads against Rosales. Congress and the comptroller have opened investigations against him and the Justice Minister has said he has violated human rights.
"I've decided to put Manuel Rosales in jail," Chavez said at a political rally where he called him a mafia boss and a U.S. stooge seeking to topple him. "A swine like that should be in prison."
Last year, in a losing campaign for December's referendum on expanding his powers, Chavez threatened to expropriate Spanish banks, cut diplomatic ties with Colombia and warned he could cut oil supplies to America.
That win was the fragmented opposition's first over Chavez in a national vote, prompting it to unify somewhat this year.
Chavez's typical strategy of attacking U.S. President George W. Bush -- whom he dubbed "the devil" at a United Nations assembly -- is running out of steam as the end of the Bush administration nears, so analysts say Chavez is seeking a new target.
"Chavez needs to unite his supporters against a common enemy and Rosales is the type of adversary that works best for him," Venezuelan political scientist Asdrubal Mendez said.
Rosales, who lacks Chavez's charisma and spontaneity, is credited with competent administration of Zulia during eight years and is now running for mayor of the state capital.
Chavez still enjoys widespread support after almost 10 years in power, thanks to oil-financed social programs.
Pollsters say the opposition could win between four to eight of 22 state races, but Chavez's popularity is unlikely to diminish.
However, it would mark a second round of election losses for Chavez, and analysts say that could leave him without the necessary support to renew his constitutional reform proposal.
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Saul Hudson)