As the Presidential Campaign Kicks Off, Many Venezuelans Don’t Like Their Options

| Jun. 29, 2012 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by TIME

Francisco Nabas says he just saw a cellphone robbery this morning outside his printing shop at a rundown mall in central Caracas. The past weekend saw 68 murders in the capital alone, the kind of statistic that puts Caracas on par with war zones like Baghdad. Which is why, though the 35-year-old Nabas has always voted for Venezuela’s socialist President, Hugo Chávez, he’s “not sure whom I’ll vote for” in the upcoming October 7 presidential election, which marks Chávez’s bid for a third six-year term. “The worst thing is the insecurity.” He’s aware the crime situation “has improved a lot” in the nearby state of Miranda – where Chávez’s opponent, Henrique Capriles, has been Governor since 2008 – “but that doesn’t [necessarily] mean I’m going to vote for Capriles,” either, Naba adds.

On Sunday, July 1, both Capriles and Chávez officially launch their campaigns, even though both have been out on the trail unofficially for months now. Yet while the images of thousands of supporters recently marching through the streets of Caracas have looked good for each candidate, they obscure the reality that almost a third of Venezuela’s electorate has yet to hit the pavement for either of them: a hefty 30% of voters, according to most surveys, are undecided. Polls show the popular firebrand Chávez, despite battling cancer, leading Capriles, the first viable opponent the President has yet faced, by as many as 17 points. But those undecided “ni-ni’s” (“neither-nor’s” as they’re known in Spanish) keep the race far from decided and will likely play a key role in determining whether Chávez and his left-wing revolution remain in control of the western hemisphere’s largest oil reserves.

That is, “if they vote,” notes independent pollster Luis Vicente León, head of the firm Datanálisis in Caracas. “The first challenge for Capriles is to unite [the undecided] and the second is to motivate them to vote, because they have the highest abstention rate.” Still, “the idea that poor people support Chávez and the rich and middle class support the opposition isn’t true,” says Roberto Briceño-León, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “Venezuelan society is not divided into two groups but three.”

Outwardly, the Chávez camp seems little worried about the size of the third, ni-ni group. Chávez campaign chief Jorge Rodríguez keeps the focus on his boss’ double-digit lead. “Every day the gap favors Chávez,” Rodríguez insisted this week. Capriles’ campaign chief, Armando Briquet, dismisses the polls as “the work of the government” – even though this week Consultores 21, another respected firm, released a poll showing the margin for Chávez at just 3.4%.

Either way, Capriles and Briquet do have an onerous job on their hands pulling enough ni-ni’s to the opposition fold by October to upset Chávez. Capriles faces not only a well-oiled state machinery (both literally and metaphorically), but also Chávez’s broad popular support, especially among Venezuela’s working-class voters, who have felt politically and economically enfranchised for the first time under the former army paratrooper officer they call el comandante. A recent government television advertisement, which has the smiling recipient of a new state-built home saying, “First God, then my comandante,” has been widely criticized for its quasi-Orwellian tone, but it reflects a good deal of Chávez’s political base.

A big factor keeping so many voters on the fence, however, is Chávez’s cancer. Chávez, 57, insists he’s recovered well enough to run and govern, and some analysts believe his illness has won him a significant sympathy vote. But others say media reports about the aggressiveness of his cancer, whose type he won’t publicly identify, as well as his own histrionic handling of the issue – declaring emotionally that “I’m not immortal” upon leaving for treatment in Cuba earlier this year and describing a mystical vision of Jesus Christ telling him “it’s not time to die” – have given many Venezuelans the uneasy feeling that a vote for Chávez is a vote for a terminally ill man.

Another major consideration, as ni-ni’s like Nabas point out, isn’t Chávez’s health but his governance. Venezuela has South America’s highest homicide rate today as well as the world’s highest annual inflation rate at almost 25%. Foreign investment, thanks largely to Chávez’s business and property expropriation crusade, has plummeted, while concerns about his authoritarian style, thanks to measures like anti-defamation laws that critics say are meant to intimidate free speech, have risen.

Still, in many cases even Venezuelans who are fed up with Chávez haven’t yet committed to the younger Capriles, 39. Pregnant Caracas resident Radi Pran, 24, voted for Chávez in 2006 but won’t this time around, largely because of crime. Still, she’s not enthused about Capriles: “Venezuela has so many problems,” Pran says, “and I don’t think either [Chávez or Capriles] will sort them out.” Another caraqueño, Freddy Kasove, 43, unfortunately speaks for many Venezuelan ni-ni’s when he says he’s opting out: “I haven’t got time for politics. I doubt anything will change.”

That’s what Capriles has to change over the next three months. And he’ll have to do it while dodging the revolution’s ugly mudslinging – which has included everything from Chávez calling him a “low-life pig” on national television this year to anti-Semitic attacks on his Jewish roots (Capriles himself is Roman Catholic). But Capriles’ so far unflappable response – he rarely mentions Chávez by name – and his smart, centrist strategy of building common ground between his agenda and Chávez’s supporters – his government in Miranda has won kudos for its anti-poverty programs – could actually draw enough ni-ni’s to his campaign to make the race a nail-biter by October.

That’s largely because so many Venezuelans are simply burned out by the polarizing strain of Chávez’s 13-year rule. “Capriles doesn’t seek confrontation,” says Briquet. “His platform isn’t for one particular sector.” But right now there is just one big slice of voters Capriles needs to appeal to – and so far most of them seem neither for nor against him.