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Fighting for Venezuela's undecided voters

As presidential campaigning enters its last stage ahead of Sunday's elections, candidates battle to win over voters.
Last modified: 11 Apr 2013 09:08

Alleged assassination plots, threats of a curse cast on those who do not vote a certain way and nasty personal attacks met with counter attacks.

There has been no shortage of political theatrics in the condensed and unplanned presidential race between Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles.

On Sunday about 15 - 18 million Venezuelans will likely go to the polls to select the next president.

But the country had a presidential election which saw Hugo Chavez and Capriles face-off, as recently as in October last year.

The voting numbers are a sobering snapshot of which paints a stark picture of the prospects Maduro and Capriles now face.

First the basics: In October Chavez defeated Capriles 55 percent to 44 percent in what was the closest election of Chavez's career. It was close, but in some ways it wasn't, as Chavez garnered 8.1 million votes to Capriles’ 6.6 million – a more than one-million-vote victory for the incumbent.

[The exact vote count for Chavez was 8,191,132; compared to 6,591,304 for Capriles.]

On Sunday Capriles needs to make up 1.5 million votes to equal the number Chavez received six months ago.

In Brazil, a country where 99 million people voted in the last presidential election, 1.5 million votes is a small number.

But in Venezuela where 15 million total votes were cast in the last election, closing the gap on 1.5 million votes is a more challenging and significant task.

Maduro's challenge

But will Maduro hold onto all or most of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) or Chavista voters from the October election?

The safe assumption by most analysts is yes. 

During Chavez's funeral I watched as millions of Venezuelans stood in line under the blazing sun for as long as 12 hours just to get a few seconds to walk by his open casket to pay their final respects to the fallen leader.

Are these people now going to pass on voting for Maduro – the man who Chavez himself endorsed as his successor?

Possible, but unlikely.

The PSUV party deciders quickly coalesced behind Maduro shortly after Chavez death, and now the entire Chavez political machinery is marching lock step behind the former vice president.

On the campaign trail Maduro has constantly been reminding Chavistas that a vote for him is a vote for a continuation of Chavez legacy. That message has strong resonance right now with former stalwart Chavez voters, most of whom still have raw emotional wounds from Chavez's passing.

Chavez voters might be more motivated to get to the polls now than they were in October, just as a final tribute to the man.

Expat vote

Where then will Capriles make up the vote difference? Do new voters exist? Not many.

The turnout in October was about 80 percent, so there is only a small pool of potential new voters this time around.

Were there any candidates from third parties in October that garnered a lot of votes that now are up for grabs? No. After Chavez and Capriles, the third-place candidate got 0.4 percent of the vote in October.

What about expat voters? About 90 percent of them broke for Capriles last year, a huge victory for the opposition. The bad news for Capriles: The Venezuelan expat vote only accounted for about 67,000 of all the votes, so it's not enough to make a huge dent for Capriles.

Capriles is bolstered by some polling showing there are about 15-20 percent of the voters who remain undecided. He needs – and is expecting - to decisively win them over. A huge Capriles campaign rally this week in Caracas gave his team hope this could happen.

But looking at the raw numbers, it would be easy for Capriles to be discouraged. But he's not, and he envisions a strategy to victory.

He's forecasting a late surge in his favour from "independent-minded" voters looking for change and seeing a fresh opportunity with Chavez not on the ballot; perhaps there are some new pockets of voters Capriles can get out on his behalf. Couple that with a potential (perhaps hopeful?) ever so slightly depressed turnout of Chavista voters who might be less enthusiastic for Maduro, and Capriles has a path to victory – even if it's a narrow one.

Capriles' arithmetic formula to the presidency is not unattainable, but there is little room for error.

On the other side, Maduro has publicly said he wants to try to reach 10 million votes – 1.9 million more than Chavez received in October. It's a clear "Let's do it for Comandate!" strategy meant to rally the base, overwhelm the opposition, and ride a storm surge of Chavez sympathy to victory.

Both candidates have their plan to get the votes they need.

The Venezuelan people will decide soon enough, when the political showmanship on all sides will be substituted by the final numbers.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel