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)

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