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No Chavez means level playing field, opposition says

A child stands in front of a graffitti at the Mountain Barracks (Cuartel de la Montana) in Caracas, on March 28, 2013
A child stands in front of a graffitti at the Mountain Barracks (Cuartel de la Montana) in Caracas, on March 28, 2013. As Venezuela prepares for its first election without Chavez in years, the opposition hopes to find a level playing field at last. And th

As Venezuela prepares for its first election without Hugo Chavez in years, the opposition hopes to find a level playing field at last. And the government can't help but cling to his legacy.

Neither of the candidates in the April 14 election can truly compare to the populist, crowd-wooing people's tribune that was Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and died of cancer March 5.

With his booming voice and nearly constant tweets, speeches and diatribes against what he saw as US imperialism, he dominated -- and some would say polarized -- Venezuela like few others could.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, head of the opposition coordination group, said his candidate Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez beat in a presidential election last October, "will no longer have as his adversary a living political legend."

Instead he faces acting president Nicolas Maduro, the ruling Socialist Party candidate and Chavez's handpicked heir, a former bus driver who worked his way up in politics. He was vice president when Chavez died at age 58.

"It is a battle between equals. In that sense it is a more conventional situation, like in any democracy," Aveledo, who coordinates the MUD group of opposition parties, said in an interview with AFP.

When Chavez was president, he got involved in every election campaign, no matter how small, even down to the municipal level.

Now he is gone, but his memory is vividly fresh.

And it will overshadow the election so thoroughly that both the government and the opposition reckon that to one extent or another, voters will be casting ballots for or against a man who is dead.

Aveledo accused Maduro of deliberately trying to make this another election about Chavez rather than about the issues that Venezuelans face in their day to day life, which he said Maduro is shunning.

"But Chavez cannot be the focus of this campaign because we are not talking about a government that was, but rather the one that will be," he said.

Capriles, a state governor, is focusing not on Chavez but on Maduro and therefore says things like: "Don't hide, don't put on a disguise, Nicolas. This is not about Chavez, but rather you."

Indeed, as the country goes to the polls for the second time in just five months, these are uncharted waters for both sides.

Since December, when Chavez left for cancer surgery in Cuba and named Maduro as his heir in case he never came back or became incapacitated, the opposition says it has been closely studying the heir apparent.

"Can Nicolas Maduro get as many people out to vote as Chavez did? No one knows. Will we be able to get as many people to turn out without the incentive of defeating Chavez? No one knows that either," Aveledo said.

Polls give Maduro an advantage of more than 10 points.

But Aveledo urges caution about the numbers because this is a new game for Venezuela and events are unfolding fast -- from the time of Chavez's death until election a mere 40 days will have gone by.

"Right now there is no way to take a clear and accurate snap shot of voter intentions," he said.

The big question, he said, is this: "How long will it take Chavez supporters to realize something which they know intuitively and which the government already knows, which is that Maduro is not Chavez?"

Aveledo said the government has an unfair big advantage in the campaign, which officially begins April 2. He said the National Election Council has banning some opposition activities and the tone of the race is nasty.

Maduro is trying project authority and assert himself because he was personally anointed by Chavez, and feels he needs to take an aggressive attitude to be seen as a strong leader, Aveledo said.

In the October elections, Capriles gave Chavez a decent run for his money, winning 44 percent of the votes, compared to 55 percent for Chavez.

Still, that loss hurt the opposition badly. In state elections held shortly afterwards pro-Chavez people won in 20 of the 23 states where voting was held.

MUD is a hodgepodge of political parties united by one thing -- opposition to Chavez -- and otherwise riven by internal differences.

After the state election fiasco it did a lot of soul searching and managed to unite to nominate Capriles as candidate again, despite his earlier loss.

"MUD is like an earthquake-proof building. They sway but don't fall," Aveledo argued. He said the coalition's goals are a large turnout among its people and a high level of abstention among those who backed Chavez.

"That is what we want and that is what we are striving for," he said.