CARACAS, VENEZUELA - The climate in the Venezuelan capital and across the country is electric. Streets throughout this nation of 29 million teem with supporters of the two leading candidates for the country's presidency -- challenger Henrique Capriles and autocrat Hugo Chavez, who has ruled for 14 years. The race will be decided on Sunday.
The Capriles campaign has gathered momentum steadily since winning an extraordinary 64 percent of the 3 million votes cast in February's primary among five contenders selected by the opposition's United Democratic Movement. The Chavez campaign, on the other hand, has never caught fire. The candidate's clearly failing health has been one issue. Another, more important factor is voter disaffection after 14 years of corrupt and incapable leadership by its undeniably charismatic leader.
Whereas Capriles has barnstormed in some 300 cities and towns, Chavez has managed to visit only 65. Capriles has remained respectful of his opponent, having decided never to mention him by name. Chavez repeatedly refers to his Jewish-origin opponent as corrupt and, curiously, a Nazi.
Huge banners hang throughout the capital, bellowing ludicrous slogans of adulation for Chavez: "Chavez -- corazon de mi patria" ("Chavez -- heart of my country") signs are omnipresent, as is "¡Tu tambien eres CHAVEZ!" ("You, too, are CHAVEZ!"). Our taxi driver laughed derisively when we asked her if she liked them.
The opposition has produced a well-researched book detailing the Chavez administration's astonishing history of failed projects and broken promises. The independent press makes full use of the document, as does Capriles on the campaign trail.
The contrast between the candidates and their campaigns could not be greater. Chavez ridicules his opponent, and his surrogates cunningly suggest the regime can determine how people vote. Capriles stresses that the voting process is secure and secret and that citizens have nothing to fear in voting for whomever they please. And that is a big issue here. The United Democratic Movement has worked hard to convince voters they have nothing to fear, even forcing the Chavez-dominated National Electoral Council to make the process tamperproof and secret.
Robert Bottome, founder of VenEconomia, the country's leader in economic, political and social analysis, has faced the fear factor head-on, quoting FDR's iconic phrase uttered nearly 80 years ago. His latest weekly newsletter puts it this way: "Capriles, and the United Democratic Movement, appear to be defusing 'the fear factor.' ... Judging by the huge turnouts at Capriles' rallies and, above all, the emotion and enthusiasm being shown at those rallies, it seems a safe bet voters are realizing the only thing they have to fear is fear itself."
There are things to fear, however. Last Saturday, pro-Chavez thugs murdered three young Capriles supporters in Chavez's home state of Barinas. Regime hooligans also stoned hundreds of Capriles fans as they left last Sunday's peaceful caminata walkathon in Caracas, in which well above 1 million participated.
Even more worrisome, Capriles tours the country as unprotected as any ordinary citizen, even as Chavez is always surrounded by bodyguards. This may provide an effective contrast, but is also extraordinarily dangerous -- perhaps even reckless, given the tense atmosphere.
Most informed observers predict a solid opposition victory. Of 14.5 million to 15 million anticipated votes, Bottome predicts "at least" a 900,000 margin for Capriles; while equally seasoned observer Enrique Ter Horst sees "a landslide" margin of 1.5 million to 2 million for the challenger.
Fear could well be the watchword of Chavez and company, as his long reign of fear and broken promises is threatened with its end. And there remains at ;east great concern for what could happen if Capriles wins, and an estimated 1 million chavistas face the prospect of losing their jobs.
Geopolitical analyst and former diplomat John R. Thomson focuses on the developing world. Former Venezuelan career Ambassador Norman Pino De Lion is a frequent contributor to leading Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.