Venezuela opposition flexes muscles

As race for presidency heats up, presidential challenger Henrique Capriles’ supporters take to the streets of Caracas.

It was perhaps the largest rally of Venezuela’s opposition since Hugo Chavez’s first election victory in 1998, as several hundred thousand people packed Avenue Bolivar, one of the capital’s major arteries, on Sunday.

Wearing the red, blue and yellow colours of the Venezuelan flag, demonstrators began massing for the rally at dawn.

“This is the first time in my life I have seen something like this,” said Elias Santana, 61, a marketing administrator. “Thirty years ago, I saw rallies for other presidents, but nothing like this.” Getting near the stage was impossible, as throngs of people pushed and shoved to get as close as possible to Henrique Capriles, 40, the presidential candidate representing Venezuela’s opposition.

“The man in Miraflores [the presidential palace] failed the Venezuelan people,” Capriles told the roaring crowd. “”Chavez] doesn’t behave like the president of all Venezuelans […] I really want to be the president for all.”

The incumbent is promising to continue building “21st century socialism” while the challenger wants a larger role for private business and has pledged to tackle crime and corruption.

‘People are tired’

Farid Pena, a gardener with a weather-worn face, is the kind of man many would expect to support the populist president. But Pena says he is voting for Capriles because he is fed up with crime, which he blames on Chavez.

“I have been robbed several times,” Pena said. “Chavez has been in power for 14 years, it’s time for a change, to change the ideology”, the gardener said of the socialist-minded president.

Caracas has become one of the most dangerous cities in the Americas in recent years. Homicides in the capital rose to 19,336 last year, compared with 4,550 in 1998. But it’s unclear exactly why crime has gotten so bad.

At the rally, Capriles said “the true ideology is not having violence and having opportunities”, in reference to the left-wing policies of his rival.

Other major election issues include unemployment, infrastructure, corruption and the personality of Chavez himself.

“I used to like Chavez,” said Jusair Mendez, a student who works part-time at an insurance company. “The people are tired and I’m tired of seeing him on TV all the time talking about things that I don’t care about.” Chavez is known for giving passionate – and long – public speeches.

The size of the rally emboldened opposition supporters to make exaggerated claims. “The only way Capriles could lose would be if there is fraud,” Santana said.

Most polls tell a different story. Public opinion compiled by Consultores 30.11, showed 57.2 per cent of voters backing Chavez and just 37.5 per cent backing Capriles.

Hinterlaces, another firm, released a survey on Wednesday showing 50 per cent of voters backing Chavez and 34 per cent supporting for Capriles. About 16 per cent were undecided.

One survey, released on Wednesday by Consultores 21, showed Capriles leading Chavez by 0.8 percentage points, although this result was within the poll’s margin of error.

At the rally, opposition supporters spoke frequently about fears of fraud and intimidation. It is true that two opposition supporters were recently killed at a rally in another city, stoking fear of violence among Chavez opponents. But most observers believe the vote will be free and fair.

“Of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world,” former US President Jimmy Carter, who monitors international elections with the centre which bears his name, said recently.

Most people at the demonstration seemed to have hated Chavez since he first won office. The country is notoriously polarised and whoever wins on October 7 will be facing an exceptionally divided electorate.

Supporters of Chavez are expected to hold a massive rally of their own on Thursday.

Follow Christopher Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris

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