HAVANA TIMES, Sep 25 (IPS) - The opposition is getting ready for a comeback in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Venezuela, although President Hugo Chávez’s allies seem set to win a comfortable majority, perhaps as much as two-thirds of the seats.
Some 17 million registered voters will elect 165 lawmakers to parliament, where in 2005 government allies won every seat in the absence of opposition candidates, who boycotted the elections alleging bias on the part of the electoral authorities. (International observers found no evidence of electoral fraud, however.)
Eight polling firms, some headed by pro-Chávez analysts and others by consultants aligned with the opposition, concur that there is the slimmest of margins between voter intentions for the two rival blocs.
“The most likely scenario is that 52.6 percent of the vote will go to ‘oficialismo’ (the governing party and its allies), and 47.4 percent to the rest, with a margin of error of two percentage points” either way, Jesse Chacón, the head of pollster GIS XXI, established by former ministers of the present administration, told foreign journalists after surveys completed a week ago.
Luis Vicente León of Datanálisis estimated the government would take 52 percent of the vote, compared to 48 percent for the opposition, “although anything can happen.” Meanwhile, firms like Hinterlaces, Consultores 21 and Seijas are forecasting a very slight lead for the opposition.
Chávez urged his supporters to “demolish” the opposition. If the opposition should win a majority in parliament, he said, the “revolution” would start to fall apart, and “afterwards, they will come for me.” He clearly views Sunday’s election as the next step towards his reelection in December 2012, when he will have been president for 14 years.
The president and his party have set their sights on winning two-thirds of the seats in parliament, which they could manage with just over 50 percent of the vote.
But the polls do not support the chances of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) getting 60 percent or more of the legislative seats, as Chávez has achieved in the past.
For its part, the opposition could claim its return to Congress and an increase in the absolute number of its votes as a political victory. With close to 50 percent of the vote, it could show the country is electorally split in two nearly equal halves, and cherish its hopes of winning the presidency in two years time.
“The difference between the opposition bloc of lawmakers that will be elected, and the previous one, is that formerly the opposition’s strategy was to oust Chávez from power by any means possible, whereas now they are respecting the constitution to try to rebuild the country from the ruin it has become,” Chávez opponent Teodoro Petkoff told IPS.
The opposition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Coalition for Democratic Unity, MUD) is made up of 20 parties and other historic or recently created groups, spanning the political spectrum from left to right, and is gaining strength while the government is showing signs of weakening due to problems like public insecurity, inflation and deficiencies in public services.
“The election result will be within the range between our plan, which is to win a majority in parliament by electing between 80 and 90 lawmakers, and that of the government, which is to win two-thirds of the seats,” MUD coordinator Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, an independent Christian Socialist, told IPS.
According to Aveledo, “the contest is unfair, because the government has an abundance of resources and a lack of scruples, but we are confident that popular participation on Sunday will defeat manipulation and usher in a balanced parliament.”
Polls predict a voter turnout of over 65 percent or even 70 percent, unusually high for a legislative election.
This is partly because Chávez and the PSUV have made these elections a virtual referendum on the president, whose image is ubiquitous in electoral publicity and at campaign demonstrations, far more so than that of any of the candidates.
But for the opposition it will be an uphill task to win a majority in Congress, not only because of Chávez’s personal charisma and the well-oiled machinery of the PSUV, but because of the complicated electoral system in Venezuela.
Three of the 165 seats are reserved for indigenous people, elected in the country’s border regions; 110 will be individual candidates elected in 87 national circuits, and 52 will be elected from party lists of two or three candidates for each of the 23 states and the capital district, the western half of Caracas.
Four out of five of the directors of the National Electoral Council (CNE) are government supporters. The CNE modified the boundaries of one-third of the 87 circuits, drawing criticism from the opposition because it concentrated voters in pro-government strongholds, but dispersed them in areas dominated by the opposition.
Electoral experts Eduardo Semtei and Carlos Genatios also pointed out that rural, less populated states that are PSUV strongholds are over-represented in parliament, while urban, densely populated areas, where the opposition is strongest, are under-represented.
They say, too, that the new electoral map of the country is in breach of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, which enshrines the principle of proportional representation in the composition of Congress and other collegiate branches of government.
Venezuela has an estimated population of 28.9 million, roughly 165,000 persons per lawmaker, but in fact in some states a lawmaker may represent 40,000 people while in another he or she may represent 400,000. In other words, in some areas candidates have to woo some 25,000 registered voters and in others, 250,000.
The combination of circuit boundary changes and over-representation of some states means that if the PSUV gained 53 percent of the vote, it would capture two-thirds of the congressional seats, whereas if the opposition gained the same percentage, it would still find itself with a minority of lawmakers.
The small leftwing Patria Para Todos (PPT – Fatherland for All), a party formerly allied with Chávez but which broke away from his bloc this year, is the third political force contesting the elections nationally, alongside the PSUV and MUD.
“There will be (proportionately) more non-Chávez voters than non-Chávez lawmakers elected, but the main thing is plurality and diversity. It’s no longer a question of toppling Chávez, but of creating a new platform for political reflection. We can get Chávez out in 2012,” José Albornoz, the secretary general of PPT, told IPS.