Commentary: Hugo Chavez may win by losing

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

I wish we could ask Paul the Octopus, the amazing German mollusk that accurately predicted World Cup outcomes, who will win Venezuela's crucial Sept. 26 congressional elections: Polls are so tight that it might take an oracle to predict their results.

There is a lot at stake for narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chavez in the mid-term elections: After holding absolute powers for several years, an electoral loss would force him to deal with a highly visible opposition bloc in Congress. That, in turn, would complicate his bid to win the 2012 presidential elections.

According to a nationwide poll released this week by the Caracas-based Hinterlaces firm, if the mid-term elections were held today, 28 percent of Venezuelans would vote for opposition candidates, 27 percent would vote for Cháavez-backed candidates, 22 percent for "independents," and the remainder is undecided.

The same poll reveals that, because of Venezuela's economic crisis and massive government corruption, there is a growing disenchantment with Chavez. The president's approval rating has fallen from 52 percent in 2008 to 41 percent today, it says.

Venezuela's economy will contract by about 3 percent this year -- the worst performance in Latin America after Haiti -- and the country's inflation rate will be about 30 percent, the region's highest, according to World Bank and private projections. Electricity and food shortages have increased public discontent in recent months.

Even Chavez's own support base is not rock solid, the poll shows. When asked whether Chavez should step down after the 2012 election or stay in power until 2021, as he has often vowed to do, only 24 percent of Venezuelans favored his staying in power beyond the next presidential vote.

"If the election were held today, the Chavez forces and the opposition would be very even," Hinterlaces director Oscar Schemel told me in a telephone interview from Caracas. "The opposition still has difficulty in connecting with the people, but there is widespread discontent, despair, and a perception that the president is abusing his powers, which should benefit the opposition."

Another recent survey by the Datanalisis polling firm agrees that pro-government and opposition forces are virtually tied in the race for September's mid-term elections.

Intrigued, I asked Datanalisis director Luis Vicente Leon whether the polls don't favor Chavez, considering that he can always increase public spending, and will almost certainly use even more television air time and public resources to boost his candidates shortly before the vote.

"That's what usually happens, but it won't be that easy for him this time," Leon said. "Chavez cannot increase public spending because doing that at a time of shortages, without being able to increase the supply of goods, would shoot up inflation even more.''

Chavez has stepped up government takeovers of companies and ranches in recent weeks, blaming the business community for the country's mounting problems. His strategy is to increase social polarization, both to consolidate his base and to have new excuses to clamp down on pro-opposition media, such as the Globovision TV network.

But that has its political costs, too, pollsters say. Most Venezuelans are getting tired of the constant blame game, and are eager for a more peaceful political atmosphere, the surveys show.

My opinion: Chavez is likely to win a majority in the National Assembly, because the electoral laws have been written by pro-government authorities in such a way that the opposition would need more than 55 percent of the vote to win at least 50 percent of the seats in Congress. Election rules give a disproportionate representation in Congress to pro-Chavez states.

Still, if the opposition wins more than half of the vote but fails to obtain a congressional majority, it will embarrass the Chavez government, and will embolden opposition candidates to unite in an effort to defeat the president in 2012.

Unfortunately, we won't be able to ask Paul the Octopus, who became world famous for picking World Cup winners from two boxes with mussels presented to him at an aquarium in Oberhausen. His handlers announced earlier this week that Paul is retiring at age 2 1/2, six months before his species' life span.

But I wouldn't be surprised if the Oracle of Oberhausen were still in business, he would pick the box of mussels that says Chavez loses the vote but wins Congress.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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