Coup paranoia in Venezuela on eve of polls: Phil Davison reports from Caracas on ominous questions about the 90,000 soldiers policing tomorrow's elections

ONE WAY or another there will be a lot of soldiers on the streets of Venezuelan cities and villages tomorrow, 90,000 in all. Their task? To ensure the presidential and general elections go off peacefully.

The question on the lips of most Venezuelans, however, is whether they will go back to their barracks or be joined by tanks after first results emerge tomorrow night. Venezuelans look with some irony on the fact that the armed forces feel the need to 'defend the democratic vote' when the main threat to democracy is widely perceived as coming from the military itself.

Two failed coup attempts last year, coupled with the fact that the country's 35-year tradition of two big parties contesting the vote has been shattered, has led to coup paranoia. And as one long-time foreign resident of Caracas put it yesterday: 'The peaked caps are less content than at any time in the past five years.'

Venezuelans are somewhat bemused by recent convulsions in the political system, following the two failed coups and this year's suspension of President Carlos Andres Perez on corruption charges. Confusing the issue is the complex voting system. Ballot slips are huge poster-sized sheets, resembling something like a snakes-and-ladders game, with candidates' faces, party colours and names.

Election authorities had to launch an animated-cartoon campaign on television, using a character shaped like a hand and with a cartoon voice, skipping over the ballot form to show how it is done.

Ordinary Venezuelans are virtually united in seeing the key issues as ending official corruption and a stunning rate of common crime. More than 60 people were killed in robberies in Caracas last weekend alone. Downtown Caracas is one of the world's most dangerous places. 'Make sure you ask only old people,' I was advised yesterday while seeking directions.

Hermes, 55, a taxi driver in a beaten-up 1960s Ford Galaxie, described how the previous week he had been robbed at knifepoint by a passenger older than himself. 'I handed all my money over pronto. Here, they kill you if you don't,' he said. He was one of many who spoke of the need for a 'strongman' to solve the law and order problem, but saw no such man in the list of candidates.

The political convulsions leave four of the 17 presidential candidates with a fighting chance of victory, but none of them is likely to garner a third of the vote, auguring continuing uncertainty. By yesterday, around 2 million of the 10 million eligible voters were said by pollsters to be still undecided. With abstention predicted at anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of the electorate, 2 million votes alone could be enough to elect a winning candidate.

Who runs Venezuela, with the world's largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, for the next five years will be crucial not only to the nation, but to President Bill Clinton's goal of bringing South American democracies into a hemispheric common market.

Most late opinion polls suggested that former president Rafael Caldera, 77, who broke away from one of the big two parties, the Christian Social Copei he helped found, could win with about 32 per cent of votes cast. But although Mr Caldera, who first ran for president as along ago as 1947 and ruled from 1969 to 1974, is a conservative member of the old guard, he is running at the head of a a group called Convergencia (Convergence), a hotch-potch that includes his once strongest rivals, the Communist Party and several erstwhile pro-Castro guerrillas of the Sixties.

While the military has pledged to respect the results, how they will look upon a government strongly rooted in Communists and former guerrillas, remains to be seen. Swaying with the apparent public mood, Mr Caldera's platform is based on overturning the free-trade reforms pushed through by the suspended Mr Perez. That, too, has increased uncertainty, leading to large outflows of currency and interest rates of between 50 and 70 per cent.

Vying for second place are the Copei's candidate, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, and former trade unionist Andres Velasquez, a fiery left-winger heading a relatively new group, Causa R. The R stands for Radical, and it is a letter that also sends shivers up the spines of many military officers.

(Map omitted)

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Infrastructure / Network Engineer (VMware, Windows, LAN/WAN)

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Primary teaching jobs in Thetford

£1036224 - £1513056 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Educatio...

Primary teaching jobs in the Swaffham area

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Are you a fully quali...

Year 1 Teachers needed for day to day roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week