Chavez vs. Capriles: Stark choice for Venezuela's independent voters
Some 36 percent of Venezuelan voters aren't aligned with a political party. But their votes could determine the outcome of this year's heated presidential election.
Caracas, Venezuela; and Mexico City
Moderate is not a common word in Venezuelan politics. Opponents aren't rivals but enemies, and colorful oratory skills match that tone. President Hugo Chávez's critics call him a monkey, while he recently dubbed his presidential challenger a "low-life pig."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But the volley of insults and polarization that has come to characterize Venezuela's political rhetoric is not resonating with a key share of the population. More than a third of the populace is considered "nonaligned," neither pro-Chávez nor part of the opposition.
In Pictures: Hugo Chavez the showman
These citizens aren't necessarily like swing voters in the United States, who are political consumers shopping between policies. Instead, they tend to be disillusioned and apolitical. Many of them don't vote. But now that the presidential candidates for the Oct. 7 election are set, nonaligned voters are getting fresh attention because of their potential to sway Venezuela's most competitive election in more than a decade.
Venezuela is often painted as a nation divided between two camps: the rich, who loathe Mr. Chávez, and the poor, who consider him a savior. But it's more complex: Today, nearly 36 percent of all Venezuelans are nonaligned and undecided, says Luis Vicente Leon, director of the polling firm Datanalisis.
Roberto Briceño-Leon, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., says he sees these independents as a third, distinct electoral group, spanning all social sectors. Among the poor, who traditionally have supported Chávez, nonaligned voters outnumber either Chávez or opposition supporters, his survey found.
"I think that whoever gets the support of the nonaligned will win the election," Mr. Briceño-Leon says. "But many [might] not vote in the election. One of the big challenges for both the opposition and government is to attract them to vote."
Chávez is still widely popular and currently leads his opponent, Henrique Capriles, by a solid 20 points, despite recent health concerns, according to surveys. But undecided voters are more critical to winning this election than in the past.
Many nonaligned voters are former backers of the president. Chávez came to power in 1999 by wresting control from the elite and shepherding in an era of social welfare and state control.