Venezuelans Reject Main Parties in Vote Against Corruption

THE ``cockroaches'' held a victory dance in the streets of Caracas Sunday.

For the first time in 35 years of democratic elections, Venezuelans rejected the two major parties on Dec. 5, choosing a president from a hodgepodge coalition of left- and right-wing parties derisively dubbed the chiriperos or cockroaches.

The election of populist Rafael Caldera - for the second time in 25 years - is hailed as a reaffirmation of democracy in a nation rocked by military coup attempts and the impeachment of their last elected president.

``It reaffirms a democratic process in which the participation of the citizens liquidates vices, corruption, and fraud,'' said President Ramon Velasquez, who took over after Carlos Andres Perez was forced out of office earlier this year to stand trial on charges of misuse of state funds.

Mr. Caldera has promised economic and political reforms to address official corruption and the country's recession.

But he will have to move quickly, analysts say, because the election results do not reflect a mandate, and voters expect marked improvements in the economy in the next year.

Caldera, founder of the Social Christian party (COPEI), one of the two main parties, abandoned it prior to the poll, judging that Venezuelans were angry with the status quo.

``We've passed through one of the most difficult periods in history,'' Caldera told backers in a victory speech. ``We are going to unite our efforts so that there is true democracy, not a corrupt and injust democracy. We will have a just democracy that serves the legitimate interests of the community and serves as an example for the other people of this continent.''

Caldera, who was president from 1969-1974, promised to return this major oil-producing nation to more prosperous, peaceful times.

``He's an honest man, a strong leader who can show us the way out of this mess,'' shouted Alfredo Perez, a Caracas resident at the rally Sunday night.

Caldera's election is also seen as a rejection of the free-market reforms enacted by ousted President Perez. Venezuela's government derives some 60 percent of its budget from oil sales. As oil prices fell and the government deficit rose, Perez moved to cut subsidies and price controls. But the moves sparked street protests and two coup attempts.

While most of the 20 million Venezuelans tightened their belts, the perception grew that corrupt government and party leaders were skimming off the nation's oil wealth.

``Perez's economic plan was on the right track but he showed no political judgment. He didn't sell his program to the people,'' a Western diplomat here says. ``From day one, his successor will face budget problems, in particular government payroll problems.''

The annual inflation rate is heading for 45 percent. A recession is under way, with the economy contracting 1.6 percent in the third quarter. The fiscal deficit has swollen to about 4 percent of the gross domestic product.

How Caldera will tackle the economic problems is not entirely clear. He promises an austere government, no padding of government contracts, and strict enforcement of tax collection, perhaps raising taxes on multinational corporations. He also promises to cancel the newly passed 10 percent value-added tax and not raise the subsidized domestic gasoline prices now among the lowest in the world.

``He'll probably name someone to be finance minister right away to inspire confidence from the business community,'' predicts Roberto Bottome, director of VenEconomia, a Caracas economic consulting firm. ``He's a fiscal conservative, but on everything else he wants to turn the clock back.''

Public expectations are high now. But Mr. Bottome worries that Caldera will not be able to demonstrate economic improvement in the first year, particularly if oil prices remain soft.

Caldera says he favors hemispheric economic integration. But he says he wants to ``analyze closely'' the North American Free Trade Agreement before taking a position on it.

He also will seek constitutional reforms to reduce corruption and give the president the power to dissolve Congress if it acts against national interests.

How fast and far Caldera can move may be limited by his ability to develop support in what will be a congress represented by the largest number of parties Venezuela has ever known.

Representation is expected to be split between Caldera's coalition and three other leading parties in the close election.

For the first time, voters directly elected half the members in the lower house. In the past, citizens voted for a party, and the party leaders chose who would fill the seats.

Caldera's victory, although by a clear margin, does not give him a popular mandate. Early official results show that Caldera received 28.5 percent of the vote.

Apparently winning the capital city of Caracas, former union leader Andres Velasquez, who heads the Radical Cause party, came in second nationally with 26.69 percent of the vote.

It was projected that Claudio Fermin, who did well considering the handicap of representing the Democratic Action party of Perez, would take third place.

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