Venezuelan president's discounts on white goods may not help in vote

Nicolás Maduro's economic measures may have gained chavista candidates extra votes or stopped his descent

When President Nicolás Maduro ordered electronics shops across Venezuela to cut prices by half, Nelmari Ponte rushed to the closest store to pick up a bargain photocopying machine and a 42-inch plasma TV.

Like her, thousands of other Venezuelans have spent recent weeks taking advantage of the cheap white goods on offer. For Ponte, the economic measures, though welcome, did little to sway her political affiliations.

"I would have voted for the chavista candidate regardless of the measures because I am chavista, not because I got a cheap TV," Ponte said of this weekend's municipal elections. Sunday's vote for local officials in municipalities nationwide amounts to the first referendum on Maduro since he narrowly won presidential elections in April.

For many analysts here, Maduro's economic strategies were nothing short of populist measures that might pay off electorally in the short term, but will do nothing to solve the oil-rich nation's record high inflation, declining reserves and fiscal deficit.

Since the initial price cuts in early November, Chávez's successor has extended the price controls to include anything from cars, clothes and repair parts and has vowed to fight endemic corruption after a government-controlled assembly granted him the right to rule by decree two weeks ago.

According to the political analyst Nicmer Evans the radical measures have halted a downward trend in Maduro's popularity "among an electorate that was feeling increasingly discouraged by Maduro's erratic actions". Whether these economic measures gained the chavista candidates extra votes or simply stopped Maduro's descent will only be gauged after Sunday's vote.

Since being elected into office, Maduro has confronted chronic food shortages, one of the world's highest inflation rates, a currency that trades in the black market at 10 times its official value and two nationwide power outages, the latest of which took the leader off the airwaves this week as he announced more price cuts.

For the opposition, the failing economy, decline in oil production and power failures are the clearest indication of a model that has failed after 14 years in power and of the chavistas' inability to govern.

Maduro, in turn, has continuously repeatedly blamed the opposition for being behind the economic woes, accusing the business sector of waging an "economic warfare" and artificially raising prices and hoarding products to create economic chaos that would destabilise his rule.

Even power failures – an almost daily occurrence in the countryside – have been framed by the government as "acts of sabotage by the parasitic bourgeoisie". "Their logic has been that by making a psychological, economic and electrical war they will drive the population to exhaustion and to vote against the revolution," Maduro said last week.

"The opposition is trying to blame the government for inflation; the government is trying to blame the business sector for inflation. This is the key divide. Not everyone in Venezuela understands the connection between heavy price/exchange rate control and inflation – this section of society will still be persuaded by the government's case. Many of these voters live in non-urban areas, where there is scant access to non-government media."

This non-urban sector is sure to be Maduro's electoral base. It's unlikely to be a large majority, but it includes at least 40% of Venezuelans, according to some polls. Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College, Massachusetts, said: "Depending on levels of abstention and distribution of voters, this could still allow the ruling party to achieve some important electoral victories."

Whether the block-long queues outside electronics shops and malls across the country will mirror those outside polling stations this Sunday remains to be seen. Many believe these "aprovechavistas" – a phrase used to described opportunists who sided with the late president Chávez's movement for the government's cash schemes rather than ideological reasons – will not show up to vote.

"These measures only benefited the middle class who had the cash available to consume. The poor don't have money lying around to buy refrigerators," said Jean Carlos Mendoza, a dissident chavista. "It wasn't something directed at Chávez's base and it only drove consumption up."

But even with an electoral victory this Sunday, Maduro's biggest challenge is likely to come in January, when many predict November's price controls, coupled with a decline in oil production, will take a further toll on Venezuelans.

Corrales said: "His most important electoral challenge will be of course turning around the economy, which is the worst performing economy in the Americas and the worst for Venezuela since chavismo took control in 1999.

"The irony is that one of the obvious policy tools to turn things around would be to address the production crisis in the oil sector, but the government has proved unwilling to do what is necessary to fix the oil sector.

"As long as the oil sector remains in crisis, it will be nearly impossible under current price conditions for the government to truly mend Venezuela's economic troubles."


Virginia López in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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