Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president, has rallied supporters on the eve of local elections, trying to win hearts and minds of consumers and voters with lower prices as he faces his first test since taking power.
He forced down prices on consumer goods as the nation prepared to vote on Sunday for 337 mayors and 2,500 council positions.
What remains to be seen if it was enough to convince voters to stay loyal to the Hugo Chavez revolution, analysts said.
Maduro faces a tough test: in April, a presidential election showed Venezuela split nearly down the middle.
In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, Maduro took action.
“I have ordered the immediate occupation of Daka stores and offer products on sale at a fair cost, every single product. May nothing be left on the shelves, nothing in the stores. Enough,” Maduro said after occupying a chain of electronics stores and forcing the company to start selling products at cheaper prices in November.
The move has proven popular with consumers.
Maduro has decreed Sunday an official day of “loyalty and love” for Chavez, the late president who is still revered by many Venezuelans especially among the poor, and he has repeatedly accused opponents of planning violence around the ballot.
The election for mayors and city councils is a bitter contest in this deeply polarised country.
It is also Maduro’s first electoral test since he defeated Enrique Capriles in April by a razor-thin margin following Chavez’s death from cancer.
A champion of the poor, Chavez was also the driving force behind a socialist model that has split the country in two.
Observers say Maduro is seeking to emulate the style and pre-election largesse of Chavez.
But he is battling worsening inflation and shortages of essential goods, with blackouts on the increase.
At a recent news conference, Jorge Roig, the head of the umbrella business group Fedecamaras, did not mince words, attacking the government’s priorities.
“We need measures which are not improvised, we need measures that privilege producing in Venezuela,” Roig said.
“We need measures that not only think of the short term, we need measures that generate stability and certainty.”
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 organieed 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.
Media handling criticised
Maduro is also facing criticism over his handling of the media.
Henrique Capriles, the former presidential candidate, says there is a deliberate “information blockade” to deny the opposition access to the public.
The opposition claims that there is a government-led campaign to intimidate media outlets that give airtime to the opposition and the nation’s mounting woes.
Between January and September, the number of attacks on journalists, cases of harassment and reports of censorship has risen 56 percent compared with the first nine months of 2012, according to a complaint filed by press freedom groups in October to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Even more damaging has been the sale of several media outlets once critical of the government to owners who more closely follow the official line.
The government denies it is threatening journalists or forcing its viewpoint, and attributes the decline in coverage of Capriles to the fact that voters and media bosses alike were turned off by his unsubstantiated claims of fraud following his defeat in the presidential race.