Chavez sees power base crumble in Venezuelan elections

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VENEZUELA'S 21st-century socialist revolution is under threat, as doubts grow over the outcome of Sunday's crucial local and state elections.

According to the latest polls, the government of Hugo Chavez, the outspoken anti-US president, may lose up to a third of the states – undermining any attempts to push forward a major constitutional reform again to allow Mr Chavez to seek re- election in 2012, a measure voters narrowly rejected last year.

"Beware, Chavez's destiny is even at play," he said at a rally this week in his increasingly desperate quest to turn the elections into a plebiscite on his rule.

Reflecting these concerns, Mr Chavez has even vowed to put Manuel Rosales, his opponent in the 2006 presidential race and governor of the oil state of Zulia, behind bars for corruption and plotting his assassination.

"Zulia represents the heart of the opposition; if Chavez wins there, he'll be able to present the enemy's head on a platter," said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the public opinion firm Datanalisis.

Experts say the outlook for the candidates of Mr Chavez's ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) would be worse were it not for the opposition being deeply divided and presenting unpopular and shady candidates in some crucial states. During the last regional vote in 2004, Mr Chavez gained all but two of 22 states and most of the 328 municipalities thanks in part to the opposition insisting that fraud would take place, discouraging many of its supporters from voting.

Despite growing questions over the outcome of the elections, Mr Chavez maintains close to 60 per cent approval ratings. He is widely regarded as having improved the lives of the majority poor through oil-funded social programmes.

But unlike previous elections, his popularity is not translating into support for his candidates, many of whom are under fire for failing to solve everyday problems, ranging from rampant crime and corruption to inefficient rubbish collection.

The number of murders in Venezuela has soared from less than 6,000 during Mr Chavez's first year in office to more than 13,000 last year, according to official figures.

Adding to these worries, some warn of a new development: Chavista dissidents who refuse to join the opposition but who may gain control of various states.

Even Mr Chavez's home state of Barinas is in danger: his brother is running for governor, aiming to replace their father, whose administration has been plagued by accusations of cronyism and inefficiency. More worryingly, Chavistas fear losing the industrial state of Carabobo and the symbolic Caracas district of Sucre that houses the vast Petare slum, where voters may shun Jesse Chacon, a Chavez veteran and government figure.

Schools that teach history under the shadow of a revolutionary

AT THE heart of 23 de Enero, one of the most dangerous districts of Caracas, next to a portrait of Che Guevara and a large mural reading "No to Imperialism!", stands a white, single-storey building housing a school. It is difficult to imagine that this simple place, surrounded by ugly blocks of flats and brick shacks, spearheads the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's 21st-century Socialist Revolution.

More than 200 children, aged six to 13, study in this centre founded in 2001, one of the first revolutionary Bolivarian schools established in Venezuela and which now make up half of all primary education institutions in the country.

In a rare visit by a foreign publication, The Scotsman found children in white shirts and black trousers singing the national anthem, next to drawings of the independence hero, Simon Bolivar.

The revolutionary aspect of these schools, however, is that pupils decide more than a quarter of their studies after a majority vote. "We want to create citizens who actively participate in society," says the school's academic supervisor, Monaldo Griseo. "That's why parents come here to volunteer in the kitchen and work on repairs."

Under Mr Chavez, school hours have been extended from five to eight hours daily and children are offered free breakfast, a snack and lunch.

"The opposition's idea that children in Bolivarian schools are being indoctrinated is false," insists a sociologist, Antonio Gonzalez Plessmann.