A starker choice, many challenges as Venezuelans vote, again

For the second time in six months Venezuelans will vote for a new president on Sunday, the first election in 14 years without Hugo Chavez on the ballot. Can his much less charismatic successor sustain 'the Bolivarian revolution'?

Can Nicolas Maduro maintain the Chavez coalition?

Venezuela's interim president Nicolas Maduro campaigns beside a picture of former leader Hugo Chavez throwing a baseball, his favourite pastime. In what might be a tighter than expected race, Maduro promised this week to hike Venezuela's minimum wage by 40 per cent if he is elected. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

You could say that Venezuelan voters are election process experts. There have been 16 national elections in the last 14 years, the most recent just in October when an ailing president Hugo Chavez won re-election and then lost his fight with cancer a few months later.

Sunday's vote, however, could be one of the most important in the last two decades.

It is also the shortest presidential campaign ever. The election was prepared in just over 30 days as a consequence of Chavez's demise. Official campaigning began just nine days ago.

The charismatic leader of what he liked to call the Bolivarian Revolution, Chavez is the third Venezuelan president to pass away while in office, though the first in Venezuela's democratic era. He had governed Venezuela for 14 years when he was re-elected in October for six more.

A polarizing figure in the region – "Commander" Chavez was the main left-wing, anti-Washington voice in South America, with many followers and critics. And now all of Latin America is waiting to see who will become his successor.

How impartial?

Mary Triny Mena is an award-winning investigative reporter from Venezuela. She has worked in several provinces there as a reporter, TV anchor and producer, radio host and correspondent.

Chavez himself chose who would run as the candidate of the government party.

In December, right before departing for Cuba for more medical treatment, he said on a national broadcast that "if something were to happen to me, vote for Maduro." Foretelling what would come in the next few months.

Nicolas Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, union leader and minister of foreign affairs is now Venezuela's interim president and the candidate for the governing PSUV.

He was foreign minister for six years and was said to have forged close working ties with Russia and China before becoming vice-president and Chavez's chosen successor. Unlike Chavez, he never served in the military.

His main opponent, the leader of a coalition of opposing parties, is the current governor of the state of Miranda, Henrique Capriles, who ran against Chavez directly in October in a hard-fought election that had historically high levels of participation.

A fervent Catholic, despite being the descendant of Jewish Holocaust victims, the 40-year-old Capriles is a young governor and former mayor of a Caracas suburb who has demonstrated the ability to unite dozens of opposition parties in one powerful coalition.

In October, he took 44 per cent of the vote to Chavez's 55 per cent, the narrowest margin of victory for Chavez in his 14 years in power.

The question everyone asks, though: Will this election be impartial?

Maduro has the support of probably the vast majority of the previous president's followers, and maybe even a significant sympathy vote because of Chavez's passing as well.

Electronic vote

Nearly 19 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote on Sunday, April 14, in what will be the shortest — less than two weeks — official campaign period in the country's history.

The voting process is completely automated, from the ballot choices to the collection of data by the National Electoral Council, the organization that regulates the voting process.

In the voting booths, set up at selected schools across the country, voters will be presented with a digital electoral card on which they will find 14 Nicolas Maduro faces (based on all the parties that support Maduro), one of Henrique Capriles (33 parties are united in one opposition coalition) and five other faces of independent candidates.

Voting centres are open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., but can be extended if people are still lining up.

He also receives considerable support from high-ranking governmental officials.

To try to counter this, Capriles has charged that the Maduro campaign is using unfair tactics, saying he feels he is running against a government and all its resources rather than a single individual.

For example, the opposition parties have denounced the daily use of the so-called cadenas as a means of promoting Maduro's campaign.

These are governmental messages that have to be broadcast by law on radio or through the private and public TV networks.

Under the Venezuelan Elections Act, candidates can only appear in television broadcasts for three minutes a day. (Most of Capriles's TV appearances have been on the private networks. His speeches and campaign are not being carried by Venezuela's public broadcasters.)

However, as the interim president, Maduro has made many radio and television broadcasts without these time limitations, using the cadenas to transmit his message.

The Chavez shadow

The opposition coalition has also presented documents that, it claims, reveals orders that have been given to the army to provide transportation for government-supporting voters to the different voting centres across the country.

The most serious accusation was made by Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the general coordinator of the coalition of parties that supports Capriles.

The main challenger, united opposition leader Henrique Capriles, at a rally in Caracas earlier this week. No TV time on government broadcasters, but impressive rallies. (Christian Veron/Reuters)

He claims that Maduro's PSUV party has access to passwords that control the computers used for the voting process.

He says the passwords that he is talking about can't change the votes themselves, but they can sabotage the performance of the voting machines.

The electoral council, however, rejects the accusation and says the secrecy and security of Venezuela's vote are safe.

Accusations and counter-accusations have quickly intensified these last several days, perhaps because of the shorter time available for campaigning.

Public speeches and debates have become perceptibly more aggressive than the previous campaign, including more personal attacks.

Campaigning in the shadow of his more popular predecessor, Maduro has also mentioned Chávez over 6,600 times since the former president's death, according to the website

The challenges ahead

According to recent opinion polls, Maduro has about a 10-percentage-point lead over Capriles, not unlike the difference between Chavez and Capriles in the October election.

Those same polls, however, also suggest voter turnout will be less than the 80 per cent who went to the polls in October.

This could mean that the victory would not have the same political strength as before. It could also signal a shift if one side's supporters stay home more than the other's.

Whatever the outcome, the challenges for the next Venezuelan president will be significant, and will radiate from Chavez's 14 years in power.

For Maduro, the main one will be in perpetuating "Chavismo," the Chavez style of government, without the charisma of the former leader to help deal with the difficult choices.

For Capriles, it will be to change radically the country's political vision through new, more entrepreneurial projects.

Venezuela is the sixth largest producer of oil in the world, but not all the benefits seem to trickle down to its citizens.

One problem is that the government fixes the exchange rate of the national currency, the Bolivar fuerte, and its continued devaluation in recent years has led to shortages of some key consumer goods and rampant inflation, which reached a high of 22 per cent in January.

Yet, without a doubt, the greatest challenge facing a Chavez successor will be keeping the country safe.

In 2012, Venezuela reached the highest rate of violence in its history: 21,692 persons were murdered last year, which means 73 deaths for every 100,000 citizens. Double that of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, according to the Venezuelan Violence Monitoring Centre.

This is happening in one of Latin America's richest countries.