Social spending central in Venezuelan election

President Hugo Chavez President Chavez has promised to use earnings from Venezuela's oil exports to fund further social programmes

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Showing off the flat she just moved into on the outskirts of Caracas, Elsi is really proud.

It is big enough for her whole family, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

And Elsi is in no doubt about who she has to thank for it.

"Hugo Chavez," she says, without missing a beat.

So does she think he will he win Venezuela's Presidential election on 7 October?

"Yes! Yes!" she says, with a combination of excitement and hope.

If the man Venezuelans call "El Comandante" does win another six years of power, it will be down to the millions of voters such as Elsi, people who regard themselves as beneficiaries of the Chavez administration.

Spending oil earnings

Elsi's new home is at Cacique Tiuna, one among hundreds of new public housing developments.

Venezuelan shanty town, or borrio The promise of better housing for the poor is a vote winner in Venezuela

The projects, which are known as "las misiones" or missions, make up just one kind of many social projects introduced since President Chavez came to power in 1999.

There are also health-care and education missions for millions of Venezuelan people who never received such benefits before.

Such programmes have been central to President Chavez's policies while in office, and they now form the cornerstone of his election campaign.

His promise is simple: to use the money Venezuela gets from selling oil to fund more social programmes for the future.

"This is the very first government that is using that resource to solve social troubles and empower poor people," says Rafael Antolinez, a pro-Chavez economist.

"There is a rich class that always governed here in Venezuela. This finished when Chavez took power."

Treated like a god

Gilberto Ban, who has spent the past 10 years working on various community projects in Venezuela's slums, also used to see things that way, and he used to believe the bold claims made of the misiones.

Until recently he considered President Chavez a fellow fighter in the war against poverty.

But no longer.

"People treat Chavez like a god," he says. "There are people here who say first god, and then 'mi commandante''.

"He can lie, and people accept this."

Mr Ban's complaints are not only related to honesty and egos.

President Chavez, he insists, has become so obsessed with his image as a saviour of the poor that the actual content of his social programmes is not receiving enough attention.

"The misiones are responses to immediate problems," he says.

"They are not programmes structured to resolve [challenges that relate to issues such as] health, education, work and housing."

Economic diversification

A similar message is touted by Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in this election.

Mr Capriles says he will continue the misiones if he is elected - it would be a brave candidate not to such a promise these days.

But he insists that he could run them more efficiently and effectively.

Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Opposition candidate Capriles is seen as America-friendly

The opposition also has a stark warning about the way the Chavez administration is running Venezuela's economy.

"It increased our dependency on oil," says spokeswoman Sary Levy.

"And when you depend on the price of only one product that you export, you are very vulnerable."

The Chavez government has failed to develop other sectors in Venezuela during a period when it could have been done, she says.

"You have to push the rest of the economy, to diversify."

Such mainstream economic themes continue to be batted backwards and forwards in the election campaign here.

Television access

And as polling day gets closer, the debate is also getting nastier.

On Saturday, 29 September, three Capriles supporters were shot dead while trying to reach an opposition rally. All the signs are that they were attacked by people from the Hugo Chavez side.

Some people have accused the Chavez administration of lacking transparency in its oil dealings, and suggested some government members and officials may be corrupt.

And there have been repeated complaints that opposition politicians have limited access to the media.

In his role as president, Mr Chavez can insist that television stations broadcast his speeches whenever he feels he has something important to tell the nation.

The opposition say they get just three minutes a day of television advertising, and this they have to pay for.

But Mr Capriles is also feeling the heat.

Supporters of Venezuela"s opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles attend a campaign rally in La Guaira outside Caracas To ensure continued support, Mr Capriles says he will continue with a broad range of social programmes

By promising a more capitalist road to prosperity, he faces the charge that he is a stooge for multi-national businesses, particularly those from the United States.

Mr Capriles is so anxious to dispel this America-friendly image that he refuses to give interviews in English, even though he is a fluent speaker.

Post-election uncertainty

But Venezuelan citizens have their own immediate concerns about this election, rather more concrete than the niceties of political debate.

Many have been stocking up on food and other supplies because of fears that there could be civil unrest when the election result comes in.

The consensus is that a decisive victory for either side would be respected, but a close-run outcome could lead to disputes and perhaps confrontation.

Those on the receiving end of President Chavez's largesse during the past 14 years may not take kindly to seeing a new face in the presidential palace.

And parts of the army stand accused of being unquestioningly loyal to the current president, rather than to his office.

Yet if Mr Capriles does claim victory, his own supporters will accept nothing less than a total transfer of power.

Polling day will mark the end of the election contest, but what comes next is far from certain.

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