CARACAS, Venezuela - Luis Vicente Leon is the president of Datanalisis, a well-regarded Caracas polling firm. In an interview with Al Jazeera on Friday, he explained that the late Hugo Chavez still an incredibly popular political figure in Venezuela.
In Leon’s view, the country will likely enter a stage of uncertainty no matter who wins the election on Sunday.
[Interview condensed for clarity]
AL JAZEERA’S GABRIEL ELIZONDO: Most of the final polling seems to indicate Nicolas Maduro with a lead, but Henrique Capriles closing the gap considerably. Any predictions on who might win?
LUIS VICENTE LEON: This campaign has been very interesting for us because it started with a very clear and huge gap between Maduro and Capriles.
Maduro was a clear favorite to win the election with a margin of about 20 percentage points. But things have changed a lot from the Chavez mourning stage, to the election now.
Maduro has been losing some of the votes. But this is natural because, in reality, he is not a candidate, but has presented himself as just a means to vote for Chavez. And right after the funeral the emotions were strong, and that passed on to Maduro.
But, now, the emotion is a little less, so the trend for Maduro has steadily gone down the past three and four weeks.
On the other hand, Capriles has changed his strategy dramatically from the campaign of October 2012. He now decided to go right at Maduro, and attack Maduro, fight with him, try to take him into the boxing ring.
The only way to separate Maduro from Chavez was to attack Maduro and make Maduro responsible for every important problem in Venezuela in the past 14 years.
He was always trying to link Venezuela’s problems with Maduro.
With his supporters, Capriles tried to create the idea [that] it doesn’t matter if we win or lose. The idea is to fight, and not abandon anything.
Magically, in my opinion, the opposition suddenly started to think they could win. The emotions for Capriles were there again.
So, the gap between Maduro and Capriles went from double digits to single digits. It doesn’t mean Maduro is still not the favorite, he is.
But the situation for him is quite different than it was at the beginning. I think Maduro is the guy to win, but at the same time I cannot be so sure we won’t have a surprise on Sunday.
GE: Maduro has mentioned he could get 10 million votes, which would be about 1.9 million more than Chavez got in the election of October of 2012. That is a bold prediction. Do you think it is possible?
LVL: You have to take into account different variables. I am biased because I am a pollster, so I think my polls are great, and I am used to forecasting elections based on my information and data.
But politicians take into account other variables, like money, capacity for mobilization of voters, and the emotion of the electorate.
Ten million votes for Maduro? Is it possible? Yes. But at this moment it’s not what our numbers are saying to us.
GE: Maduro has presented himself as the man to carry on the Chavez legacy. He has really honed in on that strategy. Do you think it will work?
LVL: In the end, when people go to vote, the Chavistas might decide to go for Maduro to pay tribute to Chavez, as a way to say, “Thank you Chavez”.
In one of our last polls this week, we asked people “How do you evaluate Chavez government for the welfare of the country?” Seventy percent said “good” or “very good”.
Seven out of ten Venezuelans told us, “Thank you, Chavez. You were good for us, good for the country”.
Chavez is still a monster of popularity in Venezuela, but Maduro is not Chavez. Maduro’s popularity is almost 20 percent less than Chavez.
GE: Why is this election important?
LVL: It’s very important because we are starting a new era. The Chavez era finishes on Monday.
Right now we’re still talking about Chavez. Maduro is just the representative of Chavez.
Capriles is trying to still beat Chavez. The people are still thinking of Chavez.
Monday Chavez finally is going to be laid to rest. Even though he will still be a political symbol for a lot of people, he will no longer be an active one.
GE: If Maduro wins on Sunday, what can we expect?
LVL: Even if Maduro wins, the scenarios in Venezuela are going to be quite different than what we had under Chavez. Maduro is not Chavez.
Maduro is not as strong as [he was]. He is not as charismatic. Maduro does not have the same level of control over people.
What will Chavismo be like under Maduro in the future is the first important question. The second important question to ask is, will Maduro be as radical as he has been in the past three or four months?
Because we are seeing a quite different Maduro than the one we knew in the past.
Why? Maybe he is trying to neutralise his enemies inside and outside of the party? If Maduro wins with a narrow margin, he does not have a lot of room to maneuver. He will have to negotiate.
GE: If Capriles wins on Sunday, what can we expect?
LVL: The country could be in the middle of a shock, because it would be somewhat not expected.
We are going to be in the middle of a country divided into two different clusters. The first one being the executive branch with Capriles and his cabinet, and the second being the institutions controlled by the Chavistas – all of them, Congress, Supreme Court – all of them.
So if Capriles wins, he is going to win with half of the people because the other half are going to be Chavista. He will have to negotiate in order to govern.
This is different from Chavez, who was a military guy, and never negotiated with anybody. He just gave orders.
Venezuela, in the future, with Maduro or Capriles is going to be absolutely different than the Venezuela we know from the past with Chavez.
GE: If Maduro wins, can he carry on Chavez foreign policy goals?
LVL: Maduro was the foreign minister and the majority of relationships with governments and heads of states were in Maduro’s hands. He knows the relations, he has experience abroad.
But Chavez’s leadership was a very Chavez one. You cannot just inherit it. You cannot just suddenly, one day, become Chavez. And Maduro is clearly not Chavez.
Maybe Maduro is going to have good relationships with some countries, and bad with others. But he will not be a leader of any major international movements like Chavez was.
For Venezuelans my age, for example, when I was a kid and I went to the US or Europe and I said I was Venezuelan everyone always said at the time, “Oh, Venezuela, oil”.
Then when I was a young adult and I was abroad and I said I was Venezuelan, everybody said, “Oh, Venezuela, Miss Universe, beautiful women”.
And, for the past 14 years, when I said I am Venezuelan, everybody, in Europe in the US, in Africa, Asia, everybody, responded with, “Wow, Venezuela, Hugo Chavez”.
This is not going to happen with Maduro, and it’s not going to happen with Capriles.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel