Chavez rattled by heart-throb rival

Venezuela goes to the polls a week today, and a charismatic young leader is poised to end the President's 14-year rule

La Guaira, Venezuela

The crowds are bigger, his speeches slicker, and Venezuela's young opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, is on a roll in a final, frenzied push to end President Hugo Chavez's socialist rule. With just one week left before the Opec nation's presidential election, the 40-year-old state governor is whipping up crowds like never before, creeping up in the polls and becoming increasingly aggressive in his attacks on Chavez's policies.

"We've never had a candidate like him," gushes shopkeeper Andrea Gomez, 42, screaming at Capriles like a teenage fan at a pop concert, as the passing politician blows kisses from an open-top cavalcade on the Caribbean coast north of Caracas.

Capriles has made big inroads among the working class where Chavez has his power-base, but still faces suspicions that he is too much of a rich kid and will end Chavez's popular welfare programmes.

The 58-year-old incumbent remains a formidable campaigner and has a strong connection with many Venezuelans, especially the poor. Yet while a majority of big pollsters still put Chavez in front, two – Consultores 21 and Varianzas – have Capriles just ahead.

Opposition activists insist the poll numbers are distorted by a "fear factor" – government employees wary of reprisals if they show support for Capriles, for instance – and therefore underestimate their man's real popularity. Either way, Capriles seems certain to have the best tilt at Chavez that anyone has managed during his 14-year rule.

Criss-crossing the country for most of 2012, the business-friendly law graduate first won an opposition primary with ease and has been gathering steam, and honing his style, ever since. A devout Catholic, he has based his strategy on a "house-by-house" tour, from remote Amazon villages and Andean highlands to cattle ranches and city slums. Dashing around by bus and plane, he typically visits three or four places a day, often joining in basketball games, highlighting his youth and energy. He bears scratches from female admirers grabbing at him in the crowds, downs Red Bulls to keep his energy up, and has earned the affectionate nickname El Flaquito (Skinny).

Lately, he has been going for Chavez's jugular. When the President begins one of his hours-long speeches, his rival sometimes tweets mocking ripostes. In the past week, he has been waving Chavez's manifesto while scoffing at its pledges to "save mankind" and strive for a "new international geopolitic" dynamic. "But who takes care of the electricity cuts?" he asked last week, homing in on one of the subjects dear to voters, who also worry about high crime rates, rising prices and lack of jobs.

Though Capriles's campaign has momentum, Chavez retains his charismatic, folksy rhetoric, and state media ensure he gets blanket coverage.

And then there's the money. A ramping up of spending on social welfare is guaranteed to win votes, while state institutions have barely concealed their use of official resources to support Chavez. Capriles's own, cheaper, campaign relies on donations and fundraising by supporters. Some wealthy Venezuelan businessmen and exiles are also thought to be helping.

Capriles says he trusts the president to step down if he loses. Yet more radical opposition activists claim, without offering evidence, that Chavez would do anything to stay in power, from vote-rigging to sending armed supporters into the streets. While there are no official international monitors for the 7 October poll, the Unasur group of South American nations is sending observers. Capriles's Democratic Unity coalition will place witnesses at almost all the voting booths, as will the government. But many analysts say government spending during the campaign is likely to be a bigger factor than any potential fraud.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions