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Sunday, July 25, 1999 Published at 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK


World: Americas

Analysis: Venezuela's 'election of the century'

President Chavez has been campaigning hard for this election

By Regional Correspondent Peter Greste

Depending on who you talk to, the Venezuela election will either lead an unprecedented era of prosperity and good government, or straight to Latin America's newest dictatorship.

To the 80% of Venezuelans who consistently back him in opinion polls, Hugo Chavez is a saviour and a hero - a tough politician with the drive and military discipline to radically reform a broken system.


[ image: More than 1,000 candidates are contesting the election]
More than 1,000 candidates are contesting the election
They blame the old ruling elite for turning the world's third largest oil exporter into a country mired in poverty and corruption.

"Chavez doesn't have a magic wand," said 33-year-old supporter Antonio Mambel. "But I believe he can improve things over time. After all, this is a country rich in resources."

Mr Chavez is a former paratrooper who first made a grab for power with a failed military coup in 1992.

He still plays heavily on his military past, often appearing in public in a medal-studded uniform and wearing the trade-mark red beret of his old unit.

Keen on change

Since his election, he has installed former military colleagues and officers in key jobs throughout his government, and used the army for civil works projects.

At the same time, he has made daily attacks on existing institutions like the Supreme Court and the Congress, rejecting rulings from both.

"Why should we respect those institutions?" said the head of the country's Tourism Corporation, Carlos Enrique Tinoco, a Chavez insider. "They are already corrupt and we have a mandate for change."


[ image: Some 70,000 soldiers are on guard for the elections]
Some 70,000 soldiers are on guard for the elections
In fact, Mr Chavez is so eager for change that he has said the new assembly's first task should be to dissolve both the Congress and Supreme Court, and assume legislative and judicial powers, along with the job of drawing up a constitution.

That would give it ultimate authority, according to one political analyst who didn't want to be named. The assembly would have the power to make up the rules as it goes along.

Fear of too much power

"Its a frightening situation," the analyst said. "Because there would be no moderating set of rules, whoever controls the assembly can shape the country in whatever form they want. And if the president gets a clear majority I'm really worried that he'll assume dictatorial powers."

"I'm convinced his intentions are good now, but he has already demonstrated a willingness to bulldoze his way through any obstacle that stands in the way of reform," the analyst added.

"And if he decides that he knows best, that makes it dangerous for anyone who disagrees, " he feared.

Other political opponents put it more bluntly: "The constituent assembly is nothing more than a camouflage to make the world think that the coming dictatorship is the product of a democratic process," said Jorge Olavarria, a candidate and opposition figure.

Mr Chavez's Patriotic Pole party has fielded candidates for every seat in the assembly - the only political organisation to do so.

Patriotic Pole candidates include the president's wife, his brother, 20 retired military officers and five cabinet ministers.

But there are still 900 other candidates who each have their own vision of what the new constitution should look like.

Pollsters say Mr Chavez's party is almost certain to be the single biggest block within the new assembly, but it is far from clear whether it will win an overall majority.



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