For Chavez, tough competition in Venezuela vote

CARACAS, Venezuela — Supporters of President Hugo Chavez have had free rein in Venezuela’s legislature over the past decade, enabling his government to nationalize industry, seize land and appoint Supreme Court justices.

Since the opposition boycotted legislative elections in 2005, critics have viewed congressional approval as little more than a formality in Chavez’s push toward socialism.

But polls show a tight race going into Sunday’s vote, when parties will compete for 165 seats in the country’s unicameral legislature. Although Chavez remains popular despite soaring inflation, rampant crime and electricity shortages, opposition parties have managed to cobble together a coalition that looks poised to make a strong showing.

Ricardo Sucre, a political consultant who is critical of the Chavez government, said the opposition had managed to stay even in polls despite the many advantages held by Chavez’s ruling party — including a strong state media.

“They’re competing against a government, with many resources, which has changed the law,” Sucre said. “And they’re neck-and-neck.”

Ruling party candidates would need to win a two-thirds majority to pass major legislation without support from the opposition. Such a feat is more likely under a 2009 law, which has reduced proportional representation and redrawn some electoral districts. Using the new rules, analysts said, the government could win a two-thirds majority with only slightly more than half the popular vote.

And a win for the ruling party on Sunday could all but ensure reelection for Chavez in the country’s presidential elections in 2012.

“If (Chavez) wins these elections on Sunday, unless something dramatic happens between now and 2012, he’s probably going to win the presidential elections,” said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's Universidad de Oriente and author of “Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chavez Phenomenon.”

“If the opposition wins, I think the strategy would be to make things difficult,” Ellner said, adding that opposition in the legislature “would hurt Chavez’s chances.”

While Chavez continues to enjoy wide-ranging supporter from the electorate, critics argue his popularity relies partly on his use of fear tactics and political patronage.

Ninoska Sojo, a 41-year-old maintenance worker at a recently nationalized cement company, however, said her benefits had improved dramatically under the current administration. In the poor neighborhood where she lives, Sojo’s family can now access free heath care and subsidized food, she said.

Sojo said she worries that gains by the opposition on Sunday could endanger such programs. “We have to be on the alert, because if not, they’ll take away everything,” she said.

Chavez has repeatedly warned that an opposition victory could put the brakes on his socialist project.

“We must win the fight this Sunday,” Chavez said in a recent campaign speech, “because after comes 2011, and it smells of 2012 … The Venezuelan people will choose a new president, and I’m ready to keep building the beautiful fatherland with you.”

But Francisco Marquez, 36, who sells lottery tickets from a rented kiosk, said he hoped an opposition win would lead to laws he said should be a priority in crime-plagued Venezuela, namely gun control.

“They do whatever they feel like,” he said of Chavez’s ruling party. “But they don’t approve the laws they need to approve.”