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Venezuelans To Cast Ballots Sunday

November 6, 1998

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Public anger over declining living standards despite Venezuela’s vast oil wealth will likely drive elections this weekend for state governors and congressmen.

The country’s established political order is expected to pay a heavy price when voters cast ballots on Sunday, and the results could boost the fortunes of a former coup leader running for president.

The biggest winner is predicted to be the coalition led by former Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who became a folk hero after trying to overthrow the government six years ago. He leads all polls to become president in Dec. 6 elections.

``The people want a radical change in the political system even if this means there will be severe social turbulence,″ said Heinz Sonntag, a political scientist at the Central University in Caracas.

Chavez’s left-of-center Patriotic Pole coalition is expected to win a plurality in the new Congress. The legislature is now dominated by the country’s two oldest parties _ the center-left Democratic Action Party and the conservative Copei Party.

Venezuela has more known oil reserves than any country outside the Middle East, yet more than half its population of 20 million lives in poverty. Many people blame Democratic Action and Copei for squandering the nation’s vast oil wealth.

Those parties still boast political machines that could help them when Venezuelans choose 23 governors, 48 senators, 189 congressmen and 391 state assemblymen.

But national politics have taken on overtones of class warfare, with the poor flocking to support Chavez.

Electoral tensions increased recently after the army chief implied that the armed forces would seek to block Chavez’s rise to power.

President Rafael Caldera tried to calm the waters by announcing on national television that the voters’ will would be honored. Caldera, 82, broke away from Copei to run for president in 1993, and his Convergence Party will not be a major player in Sunday’s vote.

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