Venezuela's ruling party channels Chavez for municipal vote

Nine months after his death, Venezuela's ruling party is still running Hugo Chavez as its standard-bearer in upcoming municipal elections seen as an important test of strength for his lackluster successor Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuelans go back to the polls Sunday, for the first time since Maduro's disputed election, to choose mayors and city council members in a country still unsettled by Chavez's death March 5 of cancer.

"December 8 is the day of loyalty to Hugo Chavez, and we are going to go and vote," roared Diosdado Cabello, leader of the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV), at a recent campaign rally.

Cabello then yielded the floor to a videotaped speech by the late president, a deeply polarizing populist who sought to carry out a socialist revolution during his 14-year rule over this oil-rich country.

"Chavez continues to be the calling card of the ruling party heading into December 8," said political expert Nicmer Evans.

Angel Oropeza, a political psychologist at the Universidad Simon Bolivar, sees it as an extension of the cult of personality that surrounded Chavez in life.

"Chavez himself made sure he was the only leader. It was a personalistic revolution, everything hinged on him, and even some critics within his movement talked about a cult of personality," he said.

Accentuated by the approaching elections, the myth-making may prove a mixed blessing.

A champion of the poor, Chavez was also the driving force behind a socialist model that has split the country in two.

Maduro, who was elected president in April with just a 1.5 percent margin of victory, has presided over a deepening economic crisis that has left store shelves bare of basic necessities and driven prices up more than 54 percent over the past year.

The opposition and many independent economists blame Chavez's policies for the country's current difficulties, which include a plunging black market value of the national currency, stagnant growth, and shortages of everything from toilet paper to corn meal used to make arepas, the national staple.

But at campaign events, party leaders still strive to channel Chavez's charisma.

Giant photographs of the "comandante" dominate the stage and replays of his speeches to the strains of the national anthem fill the air.

Rallies are packed with party militants organized in so-called "Bolivar-Chavez Battle Units," while state television, which includes half a dozen channels, multiplies Chavez's presence with clips of his speeches, street rallies or songs dedicated to him by popular Venezuelan singers.

The party faithful will even vote under Chavez's gaze, graphically emblazoned on PSUV's voting cards.

Driving home the point, Maduro decreed December 8 a "day of loyalty" to Chavez, provoking outrage over what the opposition denounced as a violation of Venezuela's election laws.

"A foreigner arriving in Venezuela not knowing that Chavez died would think he is still alive, that he is president," said Oropeza, who likens what the ruling party is doing to "conditioning" techniques used by advertisers.

"So just as one might show a very pretty model in a bikini to sell a beer, post-Chavismo tries to associate itself with the dead father to gain that affection people had for him."

Evans, on the other hand, says Chavez is central to his leftist movement's ideological identity.

"And he will be a constant in future elections. Not just his image, but his legacy," he said.

Oropeza said it was natural that PSUV would highlight Chavez over Maduro.

"During periods of shortages or inflation in Chavez's time, the people attributed it to anything but him," he said.