Leading article: A test of responsible leadership

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In an uncertain world, one thing is all but certain: Hugo Chavez, the swaggering populist President of Venezuela, will be comfortably re-elected tomorrow to lead both his country and - as he would see it - the disadvantaged "South" in its revolutionary struggle to free itself from the grip of the neocolonialist powers, above all the United States. All the polls suggest Mr Chavez will beat his nearest rival, Manuel Rosales, and secure perhaps 60 per cent of the vote.

Mr Chavez, champion of the poor yet instinctively autocratic, is a very complex figure. He embodies a familiar Latin American mix of demagoguery and authoritarianism, flavoured with a dash of militarism. He is mouthpiece of an old and deep-rooted resentment of Washington's historic dominance of the hemisphere. Once, such aspirations could be easily ignored, but no longer. Mr Chavez is also symbol of how a new breed of energy-enabled countries is becoming a distinct force in global affairs.

Sometimes he descends into absurdity - such as when he detected sulphuric traces of the "devil" George Bush on the speaker's rostrum at the United Nations General Assembly. Not surprisingly, the White House would like nothing more than that he should disappear from the face of the earth (and even endorsed a shortlived coup in 2000 intended to achieve that end).

But Mr Chavez's oil-financed diplomacy has helped forge a de facto anti-American coalition stretching from his old friend Fidel Castro in Cuba to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the chief US tormentor in the Middle East. But that is not why polls suggest he will win 60 per cent of the vote this weekend. Love him or loathe him, the Venezuelan President has unarguably improved the lot of his country's poor, with subsidised food, improved schools and more available free health care. In other words, he has delivered to his constituency, which happens to be a majority of the population. For that reason, if no other, he deserves to win.

The real question now is another. Mr Chavez may be here to stay, but is he capable of making the transition from leader to statesman? Can he become a responsible leader of his long-ignored continent - the reborn Simon Bolivar that he aspires to be? His new term will provide the answer.

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