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Fear factor looms large in Venezuelan vote

CARACAS -- In choosing between incumbent Hugo Chávez and challenger Henrique Capriles in today's presidential election, Venezuelans will weigh differing policies, sharply contrasting personal styles and a consideration that observers say may tip the balance among voters: the fear factor.

For Capriles to win, many voters who lean in his direction will have to overcome a fear that they will lose their jobs or benefits in a change of government; that political violence will increase if Chávez loses, or that the government somehow will find out they voted for Capriles and take retribution.

These were the findings of a recent independent poll, whose author spoke to the Los Angeles Times on condition that his firm not be named because Venezuelan law prohibits the citing of opinion surveys in the week before the election.

Fearfulness could be decisive because some polls indicate that 20 percent or more of voters sampled are undecided, are afraid to express their preference or don't intend to vote.

"The fear factor exists and, if many people abstain from voting because of it, minority support for Chávez could turn into a majority," the pollster said.

Most polls give the edge to Chávez, but show Capriles gaining ground. Most analysts agree that Capriles poses the greatest electoral challenge to the incumbent in his 13 years in power, and that Capriles has closed the gap in the campaign's home stretch.

"According to the polls we follow, all the momentum is with Capriles," said Alejandro Grisanti, Barclay Bank's director of Latin America investment research. "In fact, we issued a report this morning saying Capriles will win."

But voter anxiety could skew the results. Chávez has warned of civil war if he loses. On Friday, a newspaper quoted a leader of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, an activist Chavista faction, saying his group would defend a Chávez victory "with lead."

The fear factor helps explain the rapid decline in recent weeks of the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar, in black-market trading to as much as 12 to the dollar, or nearly three times the official rate. The weakening indicates that many are seeking "safe-haven" dollars as a hedge against uncertainty, said Jose Manuel Puente, an economist at the IESA think tank in Caracas.

According to the independent poll, nearly half of Venezuelans questioned believe that political violence is likely in coming months, especially if Chávez loses, because they think that he won't cede power peacefully. A smaller percentage believes that they will lose their jobs and social welfare benefits if Capriles takes office.

Moreover, half of those polled think the national electoral commission that supervises all voting, known by its Spanish abbreviation, CNE, safeguards Chávez's interests.

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