Chávez, Sí, but maybe not forever
Venezuelans are torn ahead of Sunday's vote on whether to scrap presidential term limits.
Caracas, Venezuela — In recent weeks, students have marched by the thousands urging Venezuelans to vote "No" in Sunday's referendum, which seeks to abolish presidential term limits and allow President Hugo Chávez to run for reelection indefinitely.
Such fiery battles between those who support Chávez's "21st century socialism" and those who believe he is squandering the country's vast oil wealth on populist social projects have broken out in the run up to each of the 14 votes held during Chavez's 10 years as president.
Yet, despite the media's focus on Venezuela's ideological extremes, most Venezuelans find themselves wavering quietly in the middle, and capturing this silent majority will prove crucial to Sunday's vote.
A survey in November by the polling firm Datanalisis found that 48.5 percent of Venezuelans support neither Chávez nor the opposition. This demographic – dubbed the ni nis or "neither nors" – has shrunk to 32 percent in the run up to the vote, but the group is still large enough to be the deciding factor, says Luis Vicente Leon, director of Datanalisis.
"The referendum will be won or lost on what happens with the ni ni," says Mr. Leon. "There are ni nis with a tendency toward [supporting Chávez], there are ni nis with a tendency toward the opposition, and there are ni nis who may vote for Chávez or may vote for the opposition, depending on what is going on."
All of them – to varying degrees – are capable of swinging either way, says Leon.
Where are the solutions?
For many Venezuelans, neither Chávez's government nor the opposition – a loose coalition of six or seven major parties that range from center left to center right – provides a solution.
An office manager in Caracas who spoke on condition of anonymity says that he voted for Chávez in each election up to 2006.
But he voted against a package of reforms – that included the scrapping of presidential term limits – in a referendum in December 2007.
In last year's regional elections, he voted for opposition candidates for governor and mayor but also for a party aligned with Chávez in the legislative council as "a counterweight".
"I'm not from one side or the other because I can't find any figure that represents me," says the office manager. "There are sectors of the opposition that are identical to what existed before and which propose the same types of policies that are very regressive from a social point of view.
"They don't represent a real alternative for change against chavismo," he says. "They're very much controlled by the sectors with power – in some ways Chávez is right to call them oligarchic."
The office manager applauds initiatives such as the community councils, which are neighborhood panels of elected representatives chosen to address local problems, but does not necessarily credit the government with their success.
"The transformations thus far have been cosmetic," he says of Chávez's 10 years in power.
"Those initiatives where communities have been well organized have had good results," says the office manager. "But there were lots of communities that were very well organized before Chávez."
An architect from Venezuela's third-largest city, Valencia, who also spoke on condition of anonymity says that polarization puts her in an equivocal position.
"It is felt that either I have to support everything that Chávez says or think that everything that the opposition leaders do is positive," she says. "Polarization means that we cannot come to any solutions."
The government campaign seems bent on dividing opinion.
Fliers handed out in the streets by Chávez supporters warn of the dismantling of free healthcare and education programs funded by oil profits and of a return to a pre-Chávez "oligarchy" where the poor once again would be marginalized if Chávez cannot continue.
Polarization helps Chávez
Polarization favors Mr. Chávez because he has a larger core of followers to call on, says Leon.
About 40 percent of those polled by Datanalisis last month identified themselves as chavistas, while 22.5 percent saw themselves as opposition. Chávez, says Leon, is creating an atmosphere which is "not the relaxed situation of saying yes or no to an amendment, it's the tension of 'If I don't make that decision, my leader will be destroyed.' "
"Of course by taking that path he wins and loses. He wins over those who defend him even though they don't like the referendum, and he loses those who are too near the edge who say, 'This man's gone crazy.'"
Chávez may have a stronger base of supporters, but Leon's most recent survey found that 65 percent of the ni nis were inclined to vote against the amendment, a number that would tip the balance in the opposition's favor – if they decide to vote.
Leopoldo Puchi, of the opposition party Movement Towards Socialsm (MAS) and a columnist for the pro-Chávez newspaper Ultimas Noticias, believes the opposition could capture undecided voters if they toned down their rhetoric and acknowledged Chávez's successes.
Demand for focus on practical issues
"They should talk more about practical issues – about rubbish in the streets, power cuts, food shortages," says Puchi. "They should accuse the government of inefficiency rather than criticize its ideology."
The most recent polls give Mr. Chávez's "Yes" vote a marginal lead.
The referendum could be decided by just 200,000 votes.
The key is mobilization.
John Magdaleno, a political scientist at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, believes that if abstention is less than 35 percent it will mean an almost certain victory for the "No" camp.
For Puchi, the referendum will be won or lost on how the wording of the amendment is interpreted.
"It's a question of semantics. We insist that it's reelection," he says. [Chávez] insists [he will have] the right to run again. It's the same but words are so important in psychological manipulation. That's the crucial point for the ni nis."