CARACAS -- Surrounded by a sea of red-clad supporters, presidential front-runner Nicolás Maduro pumped his fists, blew kisses to the crowd and then offered them a raise.
Being an incumbent has its benefits and Maduro — who became interim-president after Hugo Chávez died March 5 — has been making the most of it.
On Tuesday, as he held a rally in Vargas state, on the outskirts of Caracas, he approved a new hospital and stadium, and ordered the minister of tourism to expedite a new cable car. He also said he was authorizing new public housing, and expanding programs that offer free healthcare and subsidized food by delivering those services directly to peoples’ offices and factories.
“I almost didn’t announce these new plans,” he said, after offering to raise minimum wage by 38 to 45 percent this year. “People are going to say I am doing it because we are headed into elections. But that’s not the case.”
Maduro has been drawing large crowds around the nation as he vows to continue the work of Chávez, the socialist firebrand who died March 5 after an 18-month battle with cancer.
Polls taken before the campaign kicked-off April 2 showed Maduro, 50, with a strong lead. But opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 40, who has been barnstorming the nation and also drawing enthusiastic crowds, insists he’s now ahead.
Unlike Capriles, who ran for president against Chávez last year and lost by 11-points, Maduro has never been a national candidate, said Saul Cabrera, the vice president of the Consultores 21 polling firm.
“You can tell that Maduro is turning his campaign stops into government acts,” Cabrera said. “It’s almost a ritual use of power to make up for the fact that a lot of people didn’t really know him before.”
Yuraima Macuarisma, 30, had put a fake mustache on her eight-year-old son, to make him look like Maduro, and brought him to the rally.
Shortly after a flurry of announcements, she said she hoped Maduro could make good on his promises. But she said Capriles was not an option.
“Chávez was the only president who ever did anything for the poor,” she said. “And he told us to vote for Maduro so that’s what I’ll do.”
On Dec. 8, before traveling to Cuba for his final round of cancer treatment, Chávez asked the nation to rally behind his longtime ally if new elections were triggered. Maduro often rolls that audio at his campaigns.
Capriles was in the northern state of Sucre on Tuesday, where he blasted the administration for using state resources to cling to power. He said in the previous campaign public workers and those living in government housing had been threatened if they didn’t vote for Chávez.
“I tolerated a lot of abuses,” he said of that race. “But I am not the same person I was Oct. 7…I will defend every vote cast by the people of our Venezuela. If they [the government] think we’re fools then they’re mistaken.”
Capriles has also offered to raise minimum wage and “improve” Chávez’s popular housing, healthcare and education programs.
Thursday is the final day of campaigning, and the government has said it will bus in supporters from surrounding states to flood the streets of the capital. Capriles will be closing his campaign in Mérida and Zulia states.
The 10-day campaign has been taking place amid increasing tensions. On Tuesday, the government said it has arrested 17 people who were going to sabotage the power-grid.
On Monday night, a group of opposition students, who were on a hunger strike in a public plaza asking for more transparency in the vote, were attacked. The students said their aggressors were pro-government supporters.
Maduro ordered an investigation but said the act was likely carried out by right-wing provocateurs trying to destabilize the country and incite violence.
Earlier Monday, Maduro said his life was being threatened by Central American mercenaries brought in by one of Capriles’ closest allies. That was in contrast to last week’s warning, when the administration said Central American mercenaries were trying to kill Capriles in hopes of instigating violence. That plot was being spearheaded by former U.S. diplomats, said Foreign Minister Elías Jaua.
Cabrera, with Consultores 21, said Chávez often said he was being targeted for assassination and it was powerful tool to mobilize his base.
“I think Maduro is simply trying out something that used to work for Chávez,” he said. “If the charges weren’t so serious they would be hard to take seriously.”