By FABIOLA SANCHEZ, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Socialist party activist Rodolfo Sanchez is all nervous energy as he mounts the impossibly steep streets of his impoverished hillside neighborhood. With days to go before Sunday's election to replace Hugo Chavez, it's his job to get out the maximum vote for the late president's hand-picked successor.
Sanchez chats with a microbus driver who will be part of a network of several dozen public transport vehicles designated to deliver nearly 5,000 people to polling stations. Each bus, he explains, will have signs with the names of voting centers so people know which one to board.
Sanchez is just one cog in the vast, well-greased get-out-the-vote machinery Chavez built during 14 years in power. The man Chavez tapped to succeed him, Nicolas Maduro, had plenty of practice fine-tuning it over the years as a trusted lieutenant.
Now, Maduro is interim president and counting on the machinery, along with powerful, pervasive state media, to compensate for votes the ruling party is expected to lose over disappointment with double-digit inflation, food shortages, worsening power outages and rampant kidnapping and murder. The latest polls favor Maduro but indicate his lead has narrowed.
Brigades of civil servants and recipients of government largesse are allegedly pressed into the electoral army. There are motorcycle bands, soup-kitchen and day-care mothers and an untold number of state employees who openly campaign outside their offices.
Across the nation, government vehicles cruise streets blasting salsa music and distributing campaign literature. Campaign billboards festoon the roofs of government buildings.
The vote-impelling army officially numbers 200,000, but with nearly 2.7 million state employees is likely far higher. In October, it helped raise voter turnout to an impressive 81 percent from 75 percent in Chavez's 2006 presidential victory.
Cynthia Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson think tank in Washington, D.C., calls the ruling socialists' get-out-the-vote efforts atypical for a democracy.
"Maduro can draw on a Chavista base that has received huge benefits from the state and can be mobilized quickly, and there has been a complete blurring of the resources of the state with the resources of the campaign," she said. "It's not just the party machine. It's the entire apparatus of the state than can be deployed."
The grassroots Chavista get-out-the vote structure is called "One for 10:" Participants are responsible for getting 10 people to the polls.
The opposition claims state employees are strong-armed into participation, as are many of the hundreds of thousands of people enrolled in an array of programs known as "missions" that provide the poor with housing, food, medical care and other services.
Many enrollees are genuine Chavez loyalists. But to make sure they vote, the government carefully compiles their personal information: addresses, telephone numbers, names of relatives.
Sanchez, for example, has a detailed census of his El Atlantico neighborhood.
"We know where our comrades vote, whether or not they are party militants. We know everything about our community," he said.
Chavistas deny the allegations of coercion.
"Nobody was forced to come here. We came because our revolutionary conscience tells us Maduro is the only one who can guarantee we won't lose everything our comandante Hugo Chavez created," said Maria Araque, a 23-year-old student who came from the western state of Zulia for his final campaign rally Thursday.
But backers of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles say the elections are patently unfair because the government draws on Venezuela's vast oil wealth to pay its campaign bills.
"It's not a simple electoral fight. It's an epic battle," said Carlos Ocariz, Capriles' campaign director.
Chavismo is built on a with-us-or-against-us credo, the opposition alleges.
For evidence, it points to the unconstitutional pledge of support Maduro received, just hours after Chavez's March 5 cancer death, from the head of an institution purportedly neutral: the military.
Defense Minister Diego Molero's vow was followed last week by Maduro's urging of Venezuela's military brass, at a public meeting, to remain loyal to Chavez's legacy.
Opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina claimed last month to have obtained a 100-page government document describing how the National Guard would be deployed across the country to mobilize the Maduro vote. He said he gave the document to the National Electoral Council.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello of the ruling party called the allegations "ridiculous," denying the document's existence.
The Associated Press tried repeatedly to reach Marquina but he didn't respond to phone calls or text messages.
In the days before the election, employees of the Industry Ministry, wearing shirts emblazoned with its name, sat at a table outside their Caracas offices handing out campaign literature and listening to music. A similar scene played out at the headquarters of the government tax agency, the Seniat.
Maduro has held campaign rallies and marches with employees from the state-run oil, electrical and telecommunications companies.
The opposition says the workers fear losing their jobs if they don't play along.
At a march for Capriles last weekend, a 46-year-old housewife cheerfully launched into litany of complaints against the government as she bought campaign buttons and whistles from a vendor. But her face tensed when she realized her name could appear in print.
"My husband works for PDVSA," as a security guard, she said, referring to the state-run oil company. "They have to wear red and they can't say anything against the government."
Her spouse "will vote for Maduro because it's not worth losing his job over a vote."
A worker at a hydroelectric plant in the eastern city of Ciudad Guayana, Giovanni Rinaldi, told the AP on Thursday that he was fired the previous day after posting to Twitter a photo of an electric company vehicle being used to distribute Maduro campaign material. He was fired for alleged sabotage of the power grid, which he called a false pretext.
Under Chavez, the government built a network of state-run media that includes four television channels and the regional news network Telesur. It saturates Venezuelans with pro-government messages, pre-empting all airwaves to showcase Maduro and his government while virtually ignoring Capriles unless to malign him or accuse his aides of hatching destabilizing conspiracies.
The Capriles campaign has even less money than it did in October, due to harassment by government prosecutors, campaign officials say. Ocariz said it would nevertheless mobilize about 200,000 volunteers for its election day get-out-the-vote effort.
At every campaign appearance and in TV spots, Capriles assures voters that their vote is secret and the government has no way of knowing how they vote. He says no one will be fired if they vote for him.
One pro-government vote-marshaling component is the 12,000-member of the Socialist National Front of Motorcycle Riders. Such groups have become ubiquitous and are intimidating to the opposition. Their red-clad riders roar through Caracas in packs.
On Monday night, men on motorcycles attacked opposition students staging a hunger strike in a Caracas plaza, injuring several people with sticks, stone and bottles.
Maduro promised an investigation, but said the motorcyclists were probably government opponents disguised as Chavistas.
In a second, similar incident, red-shirted men on motorcycles, faces covered with red bandanas, attacked opposition activists at a midweek Capriles march in the western state of Merida.
Roman Catholic archbishop, Rev. Baltazar Porras, told the AP that a group of marchers were chased down by the riders as they tried to shelter in his residence. Beaten and shoved, they pushed the gate to the archbishop's palace down on three people. None, he said, were seriously injured.
Associated Press writers Alexandra Olson and Frank Bajak contributed to this report.
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