Fears abound ahead of close Venezuelan elections
Venezuelan voters Luis Gustavo Marin and Dunia Nessi are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but as Sunday's election draws closer they both fear what will happen if their candidate loses.
Marin, the security chief for a judge and a firm supporter of President Hugo Chavez, worries that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles will launch a violent purge of Chavez supporters if he wins. If the president prevails, Nessi, a 62-year-old accountant, believes violent crime that has run rampant under Chavez will spiral even further out of control.
"There is absolutely no security," Nessi said. "If he wins I'll either have to stay and live with the tension or I can pack two suitcases, throw four things into them and leave."
Fear of every stripe, in fact, permeates the intensely polarized campaign, with many votes to be decided based not on the candidates' promises but rather on what worries people most. Capriles has intentionally avoided stoking voter fears.
"There will be neither hate, nor revenge, nor payback" if he is elected, Capriles told a rally Wednesday in Maracaibo, the country's second city.
But Chavez has taken an opposite tack by continuously warning of chaos and the dismantling of the generous welfare state he built if he is voted out of office.
Tensions were only heightened when two members of a Capriles caravan were shot dead Saturday in the western state of Barinas. The victims' relatives blamed Chavez supporters and said the attack was unprovoked. Both Capriles and Chavez called for non-violence in the wake of the killings, even as the president continued using heated rhetoric.
For the first time facing such a formidable challenger, Chavez has painted a dire picture of a Venezuela returning to its stratified past when it was ruled by greedy elites, which Chavez says Capriles represents.
"I believe that this is true, if the Venezuelan bourgeoisie tries to apply this package Venezuela could see a civil war," Chavez said last month at a rally in Charallave in central Venezuela.
Chavez repeats almost daily that his opponent would take away benefits funded in part by nearly $1 trillion in income from petroleum exports over the past decade, no matter that Capriles has pledged to leave the programs alone. Free medical care, subsidized food and other entitlements have helped lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty, government figures show.
"They would take away health care, food, pensions," Chavez told supporters Tuesday at a rally in the western city of Barquisimeto.
The president's supporters, known as Chavistas, say they also fear that Capriles will launch a witch hunt if he wins.
"We saw the model of government they are going to apply on April 11, 2002," Marin said, referring to a failed attempt to overthrow Chavez that the military thwarted. In the hours shortly after the coup, interim President Pedro Carmona Estanga famously dissolved Congress and disbanded the Supreme Court.
For their part, Chavez critics point to what they say is a coordinated attempt to shut them up and force them to back the president.
Some government workers have said they worry about losing their jobs if they support Capriles. Fears of retribution for not backing Chavez first emerged in 2004 when a ruling party deputy released a list of some 2 million people who had supported a referendum against the president. Many complained then that state employees on the list were fired. The national government employs at least 2.4 million people.
Adding to those fears, some suspect their ballots won't be kept secret, despite assurances to the contrary from the Chavez-dominated National Electoral Council. The government did not invite international electoral observers, so the Capriles camp has mounted its own parallel organization of vote talliers and says it will have volunteers at every polling station feeding a central tally kept by the opposition.
Despite such concerns, voter turnout Sunday is expected to top 75 percent.
"My husband tells me he is obliged to vote for Chavez because he works with the government," said Maribel Rodriguez, a 42-year-old homemaker who lives with 83 other people in a small school in the poor neighborhood of Catia, west of the capital. "What sort of democracy do we have?"
In an April 2011 poll, the Jesuit-backed Centro Gumilla research center found that 42.6 percent of poor Venezuelans were afraid to talk politics for fear of losing government benefits or jobs. The survey of 2,000 people had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Luis Salamanca, the political scientist who coordinated the study, said the high number, about 10 percent, of voters who won't reveal their preference or are still undecided shows many Venezuelans have "taken refuge in indecision as a protective mechanism."
Some are even stocking up on food and emergency supplies ahead of the vote.
"Here is a person who possibly won't want to concede. A person who has many years in power and for whom it would not be easy," said Belitza Perez, a 36-year-old physical therapist and the mother of a one-year-old. "Do you think that Chavez will put the (presidential) sash on Capriles? No, he is not going to give it over that easily."
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Henry Rangel added more fuel to the already charged political climate by claiming in a TV interview that Capriles plans to dismantle the country's armed forces, which is constitutionally neutral but packed with Chavez loyalists. Chavez supporters have also said some high-ranking members of the Chavez administration could face criminal investigation or lose influence overnight if their patron is voted out of office.
Marin, the Chavez-supporting security chief, couldn't be considered a high-ranking government official but he still fears what will happen to him under a new government: "I think that we would be hunted down."
Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.