Chávez duking it out on the campaign trail. Click here to see an interactive graphic explaining how Venezuela's economy has fared under his rule. (Courtesy Reuters)
After almost 14 years in office, and with an impressive record of electoral victories behind him, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez now faces the most challenging campaign of his political career. Venezuela's economy is weak, and, for the first time since 1998, Chávez, who has cancer, could suffer defeat when the country goes to the polls, on October 7.
The conventional wisdom is that Chávez's prospects will depend, as they have in the past, on his strong support from the country's poor. He has spent years developing social programs to dole out state funds to those in need, and the tactic has made him wildly popular. But that strategy alone might not work this time around. Chávez's electoral fortune today depends not so much on his connections to the poor but on his approach to Venezuela's private sector.
Chávez has long undercut private enterprise, which has resulted in a weak economy that is hurting his appeal to voters. (Click the image to the right to see how.) But he can also use economic troubles to demonize the private sector and rally ideological voters. This complicated relationship to the private sector explains why, this this time around, Chávez's candidacy is damaged but still afloat.
PROBLEMS TO THE PEOPLE
This round of voting is especially significant, because more than at any point in recent memory, stability is an issue: the ruling party is heavily armed, and the opposition is highly charged. (Last weekend, three followers of the opposition were killed; click here to see a timeline of Chávez's rise to power.) Neither side trusts the other, nor the rules by which the other plays. The outcome could be close -- the numbers vary, but two reputable pollsters have shown the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, to be closing the gap -- and there