Venezuelan candidates mobilize backers before vote
Caracas, Venezuela • By tradition, supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rouse voters before dawn on election day blaring bugle tunes from loudspeakers mounted on trucks cruising through pro-Chavez neighborhoods.
If that doesn't do the job, loyalists from Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela keep extensive lists of supporters, many of whom depend on government jobs or benefits, and contact them to make sure they cast a ballot.
Get-out-the-vote ground games are key to elections all over the world. But in Venezuela, the strategy ahead of the Oct. 7 vote allegedly has involved not only gentle nudges but also intimidation. Both Chavez and challenger Henrique Capriles are mobilizing hundreds of thousands of supporters and will be keeping a close eye on the polls to make sure the other side doesn't try any tricks.
The opposition, which for the first time chose a single presidential candidate in a primary vote, is mounting its biggest-ever team of more than 200,000 volunteers. They include 117,000 poll monitors, and tens of thousands others who will get Capriles supporters to voting stations, driving them if necessary, said Leopoldo Lopez, Capriles' campaign manager.
Also for the first time, the opposition is assigning volunteers to every one of the country's 14,000 polling centers to watch over the voting, transmit initial results to their headquarters and do post-vote audits of paper receipts printed out by the voting machines, Lopez said. The opposition didn't send witnesses to all voting centers in the last election in 2006, when Chavez won by a wide margin. The president's campaign's better organization was seen as a key advantage.
"We've identified the need to have a presence at the voting tables because in the past we've had a weakness in terms of that presence," Lopez said at a news conference.
Chavez's side comes to the vote with an immediate advantage: a zealous grassroots juggernaut that rallies support for the president even in off-years. For the election, the president's supporters have been divided into "patrols," although Chavez has said some organizers complain they haven't been receiving complete instructions on logistics.
"Transport, logistics, we have to fine-tune all of that," Chavez told a crowd in the western farming state of Portuguesa on Monday. "The great patriotic machinery. That's what I want to underline."
Chavez's campaign machine has been visible in the red tents set up on sidewalks where supporters have been handing out pamphlets. The campaign calls the tents "Red Spots," after the chosen color of Chavez's socialist-inspired movement.
Folk music blared from the speakers at one of the tents on a recent evening in the Caracas district of Chacao, a bastion of opposition support.
"I want to show the world that we're holding a fair and transparent election, and that we're experiencing a true democratic process," said Luis Gustavo Marin, a court security chief. He said that on election day he'll be working as a member of one of the "patrols," visiting polling centers and providing logistical support to pro-Chavez observers.
He said others will be working as "guardians of the revolution" to oversee the voting process and make sure procedures are followed.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a close ally of the president, said the socialist party will have witnesses at every voting center, and has already been going through its list of supporters.
"We have more than 7 million people who've been contacted already," Cabello said, "with first name, last name, ID number, where they vote and the time they're going to vote, because we're giving each of them a time to vote."
Each die-hard "Chavista" is encouraged to bring 10 others to cast ballots. Out of the country's 29 million people, a total of 18.9 million are registered voters, and Chavez has set a goal of winning 10 million votes.
Chavez has been leading in most polls ahead of the election, with one survey by the pollster Datanalisis showing him with a 10 percent lead this month. That poll, however, also showed that 11 percent of voters didn't reveal a preference.
Another survey by the polling firm Consultores 21 put the two candidates roughly even, with 46.5 percent saying they would vote for Capriles and nearly 46 percent choosing the president. The poll had an error margin of less than 3 percentage points.
The biggest challenge for the opposition is in traditionally pro-Chavez areas such as Caracas' 23 de Enero slum, where heavily armed pro-government groups swear allegiance to the president. Lopez said some of the more than 400 Capriles supporters who've signed up as volunteers in the neighborhood have received death threats.
"It's been hard in the zone where they have the greatest control and threatening presence," one volunteer said of the armed gangs, adding that Capriles supporters have nonetheless stepped forward to join election monitor teams despite the potential danger. She spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she feared for her safety.
The slum is among 278 polling places nationwide where the opposition says there are risks of conflicts and has urged election officials and the military to be on alert to prevent trouble.
Chavez and his supporters deny using coercion or intimidation to sway voters.
Some government opponents have also raised concerns that public employees and other voters who rely on government social programs are being pressured to vote for Chavez.
In fact, one group of Capriles supporters has appeared at his campaign marches wearing paper bags over their heads, saying they need to remain anonymous because they fear losing their government jobs or benefits.
The opposition candidate has called them "Chaca Chaca," an amalgram of Chavez and Capriles' names, and told public employees they have nothing to fear. He's also assured them their votes will be kept secure by the country's electronic balloting system and checks have shown that safeguards are in place to keep ballots secret.
However, some Capriles supporters still express fears that thumbprint readers used at polling centers could intimidate opposition-leaning voters.
Given intense interest in the race, analysts predict a high turnout.
In the last presidential vote in 2006, about 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots. The latest Datanalisis poll found that more than 79 percent said they are "very sure" they will vote on Oct. 7.
At a recent campaign march in the town of Los Teques, hundreds of opposition supporters blew whistles and horns as they paraded through the streets past a red tent where a group of Chavez supporters handed out campaign fliers.
Rafael Carrillo, a Chavez supporter who belongs to the Communist Party of Venezuela, paid little attention to the passing crowd as he danced and loudly sang along with the campaign jingle playing on some nearby speakers.
"We're going to give 10 million votes to our commander," Carrillo said. He said he thinks voting will proceed peacefully but that Chavez's supporters must be organized, including "to detect any type of sabotage" by government opponents.
"We're the majority," he said, "and we're going to show it on the 7th with votes."