Venezuela Election

Hugo Chávez is dead, but his vote machine lives


Venezuela’s presidential vote Sunday will be a test of party passions, but also the late leader’s powerful political organization.

Propaganda posters of of Venezuelan acting President and presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro at Petare slum in Caracas on April 13, 2013.  Venezuela's government mobilized behind Hugo Chavez's image Saturday as the opposition complained that campaign rules were being ignored on the eve of a vote to choose a successor to the late leader.
Propaganda posters of of Venezuelan acting President and presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro at Petare slum in Caracas on April 13, 2013. Venezuela's government mobilized behind Hugo Chavez's image Saturday as the opposition complained that campaign rules were being ignored on the eve of a vote to choose a successor to the late leader.

In the predawn hours Sunday, fireworks will go off, trumpets will blare and Minerva Velitez will start knocking on neighbors’ doors, urging them to vote for Nicolás Maduro.

During his 14 years in office, late-President Hugo Chávez built a formidable logistics operation capable of mobilizing millions of the faithful. During critical campaign rallies, hundreds of packed buses, coordinated by people such as Velitez, can help swell the ranks. On Election Day, these same organizers will be the backbone of the government’s get-out-the-vote machine, which has rarely been defeated.

Polls give Maduro, 50, the interim-president and Chávez’s handpicked successor, a narrowing lead as he has vowed to carry on his boss’ social programs.

His rival, Henrique Capriles, 40, has been attracting massive crowds with his promises to bridge the political divide and invigorate the economy even as he keeps an eye on the country’s poor.

But both men know that enthusiasm alone won’t be enough to win Sunday’s race. And that’s where people like Velitez come in.

During the last presidential election in October, Velitez, 54, was one of more than 704,000 Chávez volunteers assigned to herd others to the polls. She was responsible for 20 voters and she said the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, had rented cars so she could hunt down stragglers.

“A couple of them got away,” she said. “But almost everyone on my list voted.”

The strategy, which the administration calls “one for 10” or “one for 20,” often generates a last-minute rush as laggards are brought in. And in October, it helped Chávez clench an 11-point lead over Capriles.

But the administration has other advantages. During the presidential vote and the December governors’ race — where Chávez allies won 20 out of 23 states — government vehicles, particularly those belonging to state oil company PDVSA, could be seen shuttling sympathizers to the polls.

“The reality is that we’re not facing Nicolás Maduro, but the entire state,” said Alejandro Vivas, the coordinator of Capriles’ get-out-the-vote effort. “The petrol-checkbook of PDVSA is at the service of their party.”

Vivas said that during the last two votes there was also evidence that the country’s 2.4 million public-sector workers, and hundreds of thousands of government welfare recipients, were being pressured to vote along party lines.

The opposition is pushing back. It has recruited 168,000 official movilizadores or “mobilizers” and 180,000 additional volunteers who will try to encourage people to head to the polls. Capriles backers are also being asked to stay until the votes are audited to keep the government honest. Using Twitter, social networks and TV spots, they’re hoping to make the get-out-the-vote campaign a viral citizens movement.

“This is an unfair and uphill battle,” Vivas said. “And the only way to make it work is if everyone is involved.”

Luís Lara, the director of the Venezuelan Election Observatory, an independent watchdog, said the “myth” of the PSUV’s get-out-the-vote machine may be exaggerated.

“At the end of the day, the vast majority of voters head to the polls on their own,” he said. And because the vote is secret, mobilization efforts can be a double-edged sword.

“Just because the organization takes them to the polls doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for Maduro,” he said.

The opposition agrees that the vote is secret, but it has also complained that fingerprint scanners attached to the voting booths are designed to generate doubts among the electorate. They’ve petitioned to have the scanners removed to no avail.

When Chávez died March 5, it triggered snap elections and one of the briefest races in history. During the 10-day campaign, both sides made lofty promises to raise minimum wage, fight spiraling crime and jumpstart the economy, but policy discussions took a backseat to personal attacks. Analysts say it’s unlikely that either side poached rival votes — rather both camps were focused on riling up supporters.

And both sides face turnout challenges. The opposition is coming off of two defeats and some worry that demoralized voters may stay home. The ruling PSUV has always seen abstention spike when Chávez is not on the ticket. During the October presidential race, 80 percent of voters hit the polls. Three months later, for the governor’s race, only 54 percent voted.

“Turnout will be the key,” Barclays investment bank wrote to its clients. Citing a Datanalisis poll, the bank is expecting a tight race if turnout is high. But the candidates are running close enough that “depending on which side abstains the most, the results of the election could change,” it said.

The oppostion is asking voters to space voting throughout the day to avoid bottlenecks and to keep an eye out for irregularities. Maduro has asked supporters to wake up at 3 a.m. — three hours before polls open — and descend on voting stations like an “avalanche.” In the past, the government has shot off fireworks and played the reveille to marshal troops.

But without the charismatic Chávez in the mix, it may have trouble getting some voters out of bed, said Saúl Cabrera with the Consultores 21 polling firm. Although Maduro is trying to turn this into a tribute vote for his fallen boss, “I don’t believe the mobilization effort will be as effective this time,” he said.

Gregoria Martinez, 40, from the northern city of Anaco, had herded 60 co-workers in over seven hours to be present at Maduro’s closing rally in Caracas. Everyone got a hat and a t-shirt and three meals. Martinez said that kind of logistical support will be key on election day. But the reason it works is because Chavistas are passionate about the cause.

“If the opposition ever wants to win they need to get organized, “ she said. “They also each need to do their part.”

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