Chavez Faces Strongest Challenge this Weekend

By Guy Taylor

AS/COA's Christopher Sabatini comments on the prospects of widespread social upheavals after the presidential elections in Venezuela on October 7. 

With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez facing the most serious re-election challenge of his 14-year reign, international observers are bracing for the possibility of social unrest if the outcome is close when voters go to the polls Sunday.

“I think the probability of upheaval and protests increases the closer the vote gets,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas in New York.
A close vote count between Mr. Chavez and his fresh-faced challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski may trigger a street-level clash between viscerally opposed supporters of the two.

“There are rumors that Chavista armed organizations are ready to come down from the hills should Capriles win,” said Mr. Sabatini. “The other side is that if Capriles loses in a squeaker, his supporters have some pretty good basis to claim fraud.”

The prospect of an Election Day meltdown in Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, caps a dramatic campaign in which many wondered whether the 58-year-old Mr. Chavez would overcome a battle with cancer to run for a third consecutive presidential term.

Most polls going into the weekend showed a small lead for the Venezuelan president, who has made international headlines over the past decade for being perhaps the world’s most bombastic critic of the United States.

Outside observers credit Mr. Capriles, an energetic 40-year-old state governor, with harnessing a coalition of the nation’s fractured opposition factions more effectively than any previous challenger to Mr. Chavez....

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