"I am the son of Chavez."
That has been the rallying cry for former bus driver and Chavez's Vice President Nicolas Maduro during the campaign for the Venezuelan presidency, but it may not have been enough. In the final hours leading up to voting for a candidate other than Chavez for the first time since 1999, the moderate opposition led by Henrique Capriles is gaining steam and has narrowed Maduro's lead to 55-45, a 10% gap that has already been questioned as overstated.
Maduro has been the frontrunner since Chavez's death earlier this year, but Capriles, the younger, energetic and more charismatic governor of the state of Miranda, has shown consistency and has carved out a realistic chance at the Presidency. Capriles lost to Chavez in 2012 by 11%, which was the closest margin any candidate opposing Chavez managed to gain.
Maduro's strategy has positioned him to seem more paranoid than his predecessor, and Capriles has managed to spin that to his advantage as the saner, more pragmatic choice. What Maduro has lacked in charisma and personality, he has made up tapping the fervent following of Chavez's supporters. Maduro has resorted to such campaign tactics as delivering heartfelt speeches about Chavez, marches through the streets of major urban centers, and emotionally tinged attack ads claiming those who vote for the opposition do not love their mothers and will be inflicted by an ancient curse. Journalists have discovered that Maduro's frenzied supporters have been so effective that people only express support for Capriles in private, afraid of their neighbors.
Capriles, not falling behind, called Maduro Satan. Bt he still tailored an image as the reasonable choice that will free Venezuelans from authoritarian and economic stagnation, reterating his message to a closing rally the day before voting begins: "Those who govern today have never done anything for your security. Sunday we're going to choose between life and death ... If you want a future, you have to vote for change, for a different government." If Capriles does manage to beat Maduro, this will mark a sea change in the cultural and economic lives of Venezuelans that have been cloistered from the world under Chavez's paranoia.
Maduro would not only stick hard and fast to Chavez's legacy, but he has already shown signs that he would be an even stricter interpreter of diplomatic relations. Capriles on the other hand could open communication, economic, and most importantly, energy and oil channels for the U.S. and other Western countries. The significant power Chavez gained from Venezuela's oil production would change policies, and maybe even diplomatic loyalties, under Capriles. Culturally, Venezuelans could announce their willingness to be a part of the global dialogue with the election of Capriles, and shed the protectionism Chavez mastered.
Nonetheless, the amount of international and domestic pressure manifested through Capriles could also backfire were he to turn out to have dictatorial tendencies. So far though, he seems like the saner of two evils.