Antonio Ecarri, an opponent of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez seeking a seat in the National Assembly, says he wouldn’t have campaigned in western Caracas five years ago for fear of being pelted by stones.
Last week, the 36-year-old lawyer drew handshakes and smiles in that part of the capital as he hunted for votes in the Sept. 26 legislative election, walking between houses that are flooded by water as high as a meter (3.3 feet) when it rains.
The positive reception signals a shift in Venezuelan politics after a decade in which the poorest citizens were Chavez stalwarts. His opponents, who boycotted the previous legislative vote, are seeking gains in poor barrios to capitalize on frustration with 30 percent inflation, the longest recession since 2003, almost-daily blackouts and crime that has made Caracas the most dangerous capital in South America.
“The level of dissatisfaction with Chavez gives the opposition an opening,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based policy group Inter-American Dialogue. “The Chavez strongholds are willing to listen to alternatives.”
Opposition parties had 46.6 percent support, while 45.4 percent intended to back Chavez’s socialist party, the PSUV, in a poll taken Aug. 20 to Sept. 7 by Consultores 21. Almost 8 percent were undecided, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 2.24 percentage points.
Still, electoral redistricting ensures that Chavez will retain a majority in the 165-seat assembly, where his allies have enjoyed near-total control since 2005, said Saul Cabrera, vice president of Caracas-based Consultores 21. The government redrew district boundaries last year to give more electoral power to rural areas where Chavez is more popular.
The opposition may win a majority of votes as poorer citizens abandon Chavez amid a recession that continues for a second year, Cabrera said. It may get just a third of the seats because of the redistricting, Cabrera said, adding that a loss in the popular vote would deal Chavez a political blow nonetheless.
“We are asking people to cheat on Chavez,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, executive secretary of the Unity Table, a loose coalition of the main opposition parties. “They can send him a message if they vote for us.”
Chavez, 56, won a referendum in 2009 that allows him to run for the presidency again in 2012. This year’s elections are a dress rehearsal for that campaign, he told supporters at a rally in western Venezuela on Sept. 21.
“It smells of 2012,” he said.
Calls to the office of PSUV campaign manager Aristobulo Isturiz seeking additional comment went unanswered.
Venezuela’s economy shrank for the fifth consecutive quarter in the three months through June. Gross domestic product contracted 1.9 percent from a year ago as price and currency controls limited industrial output. Chavez’s nationalization of assets from Monterrey, Mexico-based breadmaker Gruma SAB and Saint-Etienne, France-based retailer Casino Guichard Perrachon SA has also discouraged investment.
Venezuela’s annual inflation rate is the highest of 78 economies tracked by Bloomberg. Venezuelan bonds, which have underperformed peers in the region in recent weeks amid supply concerns and political uncertainty over the elections, may gain after the vote, Siobhan Morden, a debt strategist with Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in Stamford, Connecticut said.
Venezuela is “an obvious outlier and likely candidate for some catch-up gains,” she said in a report Sept. 22.
The extra yield investors demand to own Venezuelan bonds instead of U.S. Treasuries fell 28 basis points to 11.8 percent at 11:12 a.m. New York time, the biggest decline among emerging- market countries tracked by JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI+ index.
Homicides in Venezuela have more than tripled since Chavez came to power, to a record 16,047 last year from 4,550 in 1998, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a Caracas- based research group. The government has responded to rising crime by adding security forces and planning tougher gun-control laws.
The government began rationing electricity after a drought drained hydroelectric reservoirs earlier this year, threatening to collapse the power grid and exposing underinvestment in the industry. Even amid heavy rains, blackouts have persisted.
“The boom years are over, and lean times are coming,” Eccari said as he climbed steep staircases in the Los Eucaliptos neighborhood where Jose Mendoza, a construction worker, complained of the recent murder of three youths.
Chavez, though he isn’t on the ballot, remains a formidable campaigner on behalf of his allies, Eccari says.
Government allies have won 10 out of 11 elections since Chavez took power, and the president is revered among Venezuelans who benefitted from free health clinics and subsidized food markets. As oil rose to about $75 a barrel yesterday from about $12 when Chavez took power, poverty has fallen by half to 24 percent in 2009, government data show.
Walking through Los Eucaliptos escorted by bodyguards, Ecarri was heckled by one Chavez supporter.
“Don’t you know we’re poor?” said one man who declined to give his name. “What are you doing here?”
Chavez has said any opposition gains threaten to derail social programs.
“If they succeed in taking the National Assembly, imagine what would happen,” Chavez said Sept. 15. “They would unleash a ferocious campaign to destabilize the country and we would be obliged to study alternatives because we are not the idiots we once were.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at email@example.com