Rival's promise to preserve welfare while modernising the Marxist economy may prove the key to victory
It is imaginable - not certain, but certainly possible - that Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's strongman ruler since 1998, will lose the presidential election on October 7.
The most recent opinion polls showed that his challenger, Henrique Capriles, has closed the gap between them to only 5 per cent or less of the popular vote. If Chavez loses, would he actually hand over power peacefully?
He says he would, of course - but he also says that it's an irrelevant question, since he will surely win. "It is written," he tells his supporters reassuringly. But it is not. Chavez really could lose this time, for 30 different opposition parties, ranging from the centre-left to the far right, have finally got together and chosen a single candidate for the presidency. Moreover, Capriles is no Mitt Romney: he knows that the votes of the poor matter.
In previous elections, the Venezuelan opposition railed against Chavez's "socialism" and Marxism, and lost. Capriles, by contrast, promises to retain most of Chavez's social welfare policies, which have poured almost $300 billion over the last dozen years into programmes to improve literacy, extend high school education, improve health care, build housing for the homeless, and subsidise household purchases from groceries to appliances.
Capriles can make those promises because, like Chavez, he can pay for them out of the country's huge oil revenues. He HAS to make them, because poorer Venezuelans - and most Venezuelans are poor - won't vote for a candidate who would end all that. But Capriles says he will spend that money more effectively, with less corruption, and a lot of people believe him. It would not be hard to be more efficient than Chavez's ramshackle administration.
Capriles also has the advantage of being 18 years younger and a lot fitter than the incumbent, who has been fighting cancer for the past 15 months. Chavez says it is cured now, but physically he is clearly not the man he was. Some of his own supporters suspect that he is not long for this world - and while they still love Chavez himself, they neither love nor trust the people around him, who might seize power when he is gone.
Moreover, though Chavez's rule has benefited the poor in many ways, they are still poor. Venezuela's economy has grown far more slowly than those of its big neighbours, Brazil and Colombia, even though it has enjoyed the advantages of big oil exports and a tenfold rise in the world oil price.
Indeed, almost all the growth in Venezuela's economy since Chavez took power is due to higher oil prices; most other parts of the economy have shrunk. And while the oil revenues have been big enough - $980 billion during Chavez's presidency - to sustain the subsidies at their current level, they will never be enough to transform the entire economy.
In fact, many people now feel that they are sliding backward again, for inflation has been about 1000 per cent since 1998, 10 times worse than in Venezuela's neighbours. And the shelves in the government-subsidised food shops are bare most of the time.
It's like the old Soviet Union: when a shipment of some basic commodity finally arrives, it is all snapped up instantly, and then there is nothing until the next delivery. Nationalisation and central planning didn't do the old communist states of Europe any good, and they haven't worked in Venezuela either. Something radical must be done to get the real, non-oil economy growing at a decent rate.
So even Chavez loyalists can be tempted by a politician who promises to keep the subsidies but to scrap the antique Marxist dogmatism that cripples the economy.
Henrique Capriles is exactly that politician, and therefore he really might win the election. What then?
What would probably happen is a grudging but peaceful handover of power to the newly elected President Capriles. Chavez has not been reluctant to exploit the Government's near-monopoly of the broadcast media and his rhetoric is often vicious - he has called Capriles a "pig" and a "fascist" - but unlike the former communist states of Europe, he
has always held real elections that he could actually lose. If he loses this one, he still knows that the welfare state he began to build will survive his departure: it is now part of the country's political furniture.
He will be conscious that his health might not be good enough to sustain him through a long post-election crisis. And for all his bluff and bluster about defending the "Bolivarian revolution", he may actually respect a democratic vote that goes against him.
Whether his colleagues and cronies would feel the same way is another question, but they could hardly reject an outcome that Chavez himself accepted. This thing could still end well.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.