Opposition campaign: hollow populism and hype

To judge by the coverage in the corporate media, the main opposition candidate in the December 3 presidential elections, Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales, is on the march and making ground against socialist President Hugo Chavez. This is despite pro-Chavez forces winning every national election since 1998, and most polls suggesting Chavez
is certain to win the presidential vote.

The corporate media gave extensive coverage to the opposition's Caracas rally on October 7, despite the turnout only being 9000 according to the police, although Associated Press reported that "reporters on the scene estimated the turnout was more than 10,000". This is a very low turnout, especially given that the opposition is backed by the major private media outlets. BBC News nonetheless covered the demonstration under the headline "Mass Venezuela opposition rally", and claimed "tens of thousands" participated.

The international media has ignored pro-Chavez demonstrations, such as the three-hour pro-Chavez cavalcade through El Valle and Coche in western Caracas the following day that brought poor inhabitants out onto the streets, according to an October 9 Vheadline.com report. "There was little comment on the cavalcade from opposition sources, still smarting from government reactions" to the small size of the Rosales rally.

With the base of the opposition limited to the middle and upper classes, Rosales is on an offensive to win over Chavez's social base among the poor. He has made a series of over-the-top promises about handing out Venezuela's oil wealth.

Redistributing the oil wealth into programs aimed at reducing poverty is a key component of the Bolivarian revolution led by Chavez. Rosales is trying to go one better, promising that every Venezuelan would be able to get a monthly stipend funded by oil revenue of at least US$250 per month, more than the current minimum wage. Rosales has also promised that the government would pay the cost for any Venezuelan who wanted to study at a private university. He has also promised wage increases for public servants.

On top of this, Rosales has promised to not just maintain the social missions run by the Chavez government, that help provide education, health care and other essential services to the poor, but to expand them. Rosales criticised the missions, claiming they only favoured those who supported the government, telling the October 7 demonstration that "The missions must continue but they have to undergo essential changes", according to an October 7 Bloomsberg report. The opposition has long accused Chavez of irresponsibly spending oil revenues in a cynical bid to win votes, yet this is precisely what Rosales is promising to do.

Perhaps realising that the poor are unlikely to be fooled by over-the-top promises when the government is actually delivering concrete results, Rosales has combined these promises with right-wing populism. A key part of his campaign
is attacking Chavez over the high level of crime in Venezuela, undeniably a major problem. Again offering to splash the oil wealth around, Rosales has promised to deal with crime by offering to buy any privately owned gun for US$2000, as well as fund a massive expansion of the police and judiciary.

Rosales has attempted to play on frustrations among sections of the poor at the sometimes slow pace of change and the many ongoing problems with crude right-wing nationalism. He has accused Chavez of abandoning the poor in Venezuela while giving oil away overseas via the government's internationalist programs that provide discounted heating oil to other Third World countries and to thousands of poor people in the US.

Rosales has criticised Chavez for his trips overseas, claiming Chavez no longer visits Venezuela's barrios. He has promised not to send "one more barrel" of oil overseas while poverty remains in Venezuela.

Rosales has singled out Venezuela's close relationship with socialist Cuba — discounted oil has been exchanged with Cuba for more than 20,000 Cuban medical staff who help provide free health care to Venezuela's poor. "They say the Venezuelan people rule — that's a lie", said Rosales, according to an October 7 Washington Post article. "[We have] a government that is a puppet of a communist, totalitarian system … We have a government that is governing from Cuba."

The opposition has made outlandish claims about its level of support in the coming elections, claiming significant ground against Chavez, whom independent polls suggest is on target to win a clear majority. Rosales claims to have majority support in four of Venezuela's nine states. One of the heads of the opposition's electoral campaign, Liliana Hernandez, went as far as to claim that some polls put Chavez and Rosales equal, and that Rosales would overtake Chavez, according to an October 9 Vheadline.com report.

A September 29 Financial Times report said that US-based polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland put support for Rosales at 37%, up from previous polls that put his support at 17%. However, this firm, which has ties to the opposition, was responsible for carrying out exit polls during the recall referendum in August 2004, which Chavez won with just under 60% of the vote. The exit polls, however, suggested the vote was almost the exact opposite.

Despite their own hype, the opposition almost certainly know they are going to lose. The hype and fake polls are aimed at creating a post-election situation where they can claim that the elections were rigged. This is aimed both at the international community and at their own base in the middle class. A similar campaign was carried out after the recall referendum, despite the fact that the vote was verified by observers from the Organization of American States and the Carter Centre.

Unable to re-win power democratically, the wealthy elite that support the opposition is aiming to use a campaign to discredit the elections to create conditions to destablise Venezuela in an attempt to stop the revolutionary process.

Backed by the US government, which supported a coup against Chavez in 2002 and helps fund opposition groups, a campaign claiming the elections were rigged could be used to underpin a separatist movement in Zulia, which produces 40% of Venezuela's oil output.

It isn't hard to see why Chavez is set to win when you look at the state of the economy. Venezuelanalysis.com reported on October 7 that the Venezuelan economy grew 9.6% in the first half of 2006. The economy has grown in every quarter since the 2003. The article pointed out that this growth is directly tied to government social spending, through the missions, wage increases and significant state investment into industry and public works. The article reports that government spending is expected to reach 40% of GDP by the end of the year. Next year it is expected to rise.

While this is permitted by high oil prices, it is also tied to significant changes in government policy in the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. When Chavez came to power, the government only received 20% of PDVSA revenue. Now it receives 100%.

The government has used its control over PDVSA to renegotiate terms with multinational oil companies operating in Venezuela. Under Chavez, foreign companies have been hit with a series of tax and royalty hikes, and have also been served massive debts amounting to $4 billion for taxes the government accuses them of dodging.

PDVSA has also forced oil companies investing in Venezuela to convert their investments into joint ventures with PDVSA, in which PDVSA must have at least a 51% controlling interest. As a result of forcing the companies to sign these joint ventures, foreign oil companies control around two-thirds less of the oil projects than previously.

These changes have underpinned the government's dramatic spending increase, which is reducing poverty. In a June statement, the World Bank estimated that the number of poverty-stricken households in Venezuela dropped from 40% to 30% between 1995 and 2005, pointing to the government's social programs and wage increases as major factors.

The gains from the process of social change led by Chavez in the context of a growing economy, and increasing confidence and involvement in politics of Chavez's social base among the poor will ensure that Chavez will win the elections. The only questions will be by how much, and what the US-backed opposition does next.