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A level playing field?

Venezuelans awoke to an unexpected national holiday today. It's the 10th anniversary of Hugo Chavez's presidency and the unpredictable president sprung a surprise by announcing a public holiday to commemorate the date.

I won't go into the pros and cons of his time in power. You can read excellent summaries in The Guardian, the BBC and the Christian Science Monitor.

In most countries, there would be a public outcry if a leader declared a holiday in honor of himself. But that's not how politics works in Venezuela.

Underneath everything that happens here at the moment is the undercurrent of a referendum that seeks to abolish presidential term limits.

Is the holiday a political move? No doubt the surprise holiday would have made most Venezuelans happy, especially his supporters. But there are voices of discontent. The president of the Chamber of Venezuelan Private Education, Octavio de Lamo, said he expected many children to turn up to school because their parents would not have heard the announcement. Business leaders said it was difficult to make plans when the government took spur-of-the-moment decisions like these. 

Chavez is an astute strategist but people I have spoken to think that undecided voters will interpret this stunt as a sign of, at best, arrogance, at worst, megalomaniacal tendencies.

In a tight race — the latest polls put him just a couple of points ahead — that could be crucial.

Among other bizarre political stunts, on Saturday the president took part in a televised baseball game. He played with the Venezuelan women's Olympic team against a team of baseball professionals headed up by Diosdado Cabello ( a great name — it translates as 'God-given Hair'), for many years his right-hand man. Cabello's team were called the 'si va' team. which is the slogan Chavez is using to promote his case in the referendum. Chavez's team won.

Meanwhile, the Caracas metro has been piping out a salsa tune with lyrics that promote the 'yes' vote in the referendum.

Chavez has suspended his weekly television show in which he usually speaks on anything from Marxist theory to the fallacies of the American "empire" for anything between three and nine hours.

Instead he has been on a country-wide tour of the country, campaigning for the referendum. Almost daily he uses a law that allows him to interrupt terrestrial television broadcasts to make announcements. All channels must broadcast his announcements, which usually last more than two hours.

The law was originally implemented to allow the president to speak to the country at times of national emergency. Instead, Chavez uses it to promote his campaign. The Caracas-based polling firm says he applied the law 46 times between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15.

The metro is a publicly funded institution. Half of the government's money comes from sovereign oil revenues, the other half from taxpayers. The baseball game was broadcast on VTV,  the state (eg oil and taxpayer) funded television station.

For their part, Chavez's supporters argue that its a level playing field because the private media — the TV channel Globovision and the newspapers El Universal and El Nacional — is openly biased against the government. 

Are these kinds of stunts signs of healthy democracy in Venezuela? Probably not. But expect to see plenty more of them before Feb. 15.