“The confrontation here isn’t between Chavez and this little man, it’s the bourgeoisie against the people, the empire against the country”, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on February 16.
Chavez was referring to his newly-nominated presidential opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski. He was pointing to the class battle that lies behind the looming presidential elections scheduled for October 7.
Radonski, a 39-year-old lawyer and governor of Miranda state, won the endorsement of the right-wing Democratic Unity Forum (MUD) bloc on February 12. He won with 62% of 1.8 million votes in a primary process marked by allegations of irregularities.
The MUD used the National Electoral Commission (CNE) to run its primaries despite for years claiming the CNE is a fraudulent, corrupt tool of the Chavez government. The MUD's publicised participation figures were revealed to be mathematically improbable.
The MUD’s electoral council also burned all the cast ballots almost immediately after the conclusion of the day’s voting, despite the fact that several candidates wished to appeal vote counts.
However irregular the process, the selection of Radonski to go head-to-head with Chavez for the presidential sash opens the election campaign proper. The selection of a candidate must come as some relief to the perennially-divided right-wing bloc.
But who is Radonski, and what does he stand for?
In the MUD he is considered a moderate with a view to turn Venezuela down the road to a Brazil-style social-democratic capitalism. He calls himself a “progressive” of neither the left nor the right.
In deference to the overwhelming popular enthusiasm for the revolution’s social missions that have benefited millions of Venezuela's poor, he feigns support. But Radonski opposes their being funded through oil revenues.
His campaign slogan, “there is a way” mimics vacuous political slogans from capitalist elections everywhere -- it provides little indication of his actual political stance.
Contrary his moderate credentials, Radonski is infamous for his role in leading a violent siege of the Cuban embassy during the April 2002 US-backed military coup. During the coup, Chavez -- the elected president -- was kidnapped before being returned to the presidency by a mass uprising of workers and soldiers.
Radonski is from one of Venezuela’s wealthiest families.
In response to Radonski’s nomination as the opposition’s candidate, Chavez welcomed him to the electoral race. But Chavez challenged him to come up with more than a slogan, and to “confront me with ideas”.
Chavez characterised Radonski as “the candidate of imperialism, of the bourgeoisie's pro-coup sector”.
He also attacked Radonski’s claimed support for the social missions while opposing their state funding through the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. He said Radonski would return the company to “the capitalists, the transnationals”.
The National Assembly's first vice-president Aristobulo Isturiz said Radonski “is toying with a retrogression. This candidate is the past, because he wants to take us back to neoliberalism”.
Isturiz said such moves would put Venezuela in the same situation as the European nations of today. He said Venezuela’s “indignados” (the name for members of the Spanish anti-neoliberal mass movement) fought and defeated neoliberalism.
Early indications are that the pro-revolution forces organised under the Chavez-led Great Patriotic Pole electoral alliance will comfortably return Chavez to the presidency.
A study carried out by the International Consulting Services (ICS) indicated that if a poll were held now, 58.2% of Venezuela’s population would vote for Hugo Chavez against 35.4% for Radonski.
The ICS also found in a January study that 53% of Venezuelans support Chavez’s socialist vision for the nation, with only 21% saying they believed capitalism was the best system to develop Venezuela.
The Group of Social Investigation XXI (GIS XXI) found Chavez to have a popularity rating of 61.2%.
As the presidential battle continues to heat up, Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the biggest force in the electoral alliance, stepped up its activity.
Chavez has dubbed the campaign the Carabobo campaign. This refers to the 1821 Battle of Carabobo that was decisive in winning Venezuelan independence from Spain.
A huge rally of PSUV grassroots “patrollers” was held on February 17 to bring together and organise PSUV members for the political battle ahead.
A mass campaign of door-knocking has already begun. By February 16, PSUV patrollers had visited a total of 417,000 homes in a first phase of house-to-house deployment. More than just soliciting support for Chavez, the patrollers discuss socialism and encourage participation in the revolution’s programs.
[Owen Richards maintains the blog Venezuela: Translating the Revolution.]