Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s latest campaign pitch is to warn voters – especially rich ones – that they should re-elect him to prevent the country from descending into civil war.
This reveals not only a lack of imagination and a disrespect for democratic institutions, but also Mr. Chavez’s growing fear that his rival, Henrique Capriles, is gaining ground.
For the first time in 14 years, there is a real possibility Mr. Chavez, a socialist leader with regional aspirations, will not win when Venezuelans go to the polls on Oct. 7.
A Capriles victory will not unleash internal armed conflict in the country of 26 million. On the contrary, the opposition candidate, who describes himself as “centre-left,” has vowed not to dismantle many of the popular social programs instituted under Mr. Chavez, including free medical clinics for the poor and a subsidized chain of grocery stores.
But Mr. Capriles has also articulated a clear set of solutions to Venezuela’s deeply rooted problems, including galloping inflation, crumbling infrastructure, and inefficiency in the oil sector, which is run by Petroleos de Venezuela, a state monopoly. Last month an explosion at the country’s largest oil refinery killed 42 people.
Mr. Chavez claims his two terms in office have brought Venezuela peace and stability; however, the country’s crime rate is now one of the worst in the world, and the economy’s growth has been sluggish. Given record high oil prices, voters are right to expect more. The oil sector is starved for investment, despite the fact that the country is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter.
Mr. Capriles has pledged to double the production of crude oil, create three million new jobs and build 1,000 new schools.
While most polls still show Mr. Chavez in the lead, and he remains deeply popular among the poor, the gap between him and his opponent is narrowing. The President is wrong to think that threats of civil war are enough to convince a volatile electorate not to take a chance on someone else.