- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela | President Hugo Chavez is threatening to imprison a popular opposition leader, roll tanks into the streets and use force to defend the results of this Sunday’s state and local elections.

The vote is an important test of Mr. Chavez’s support a year after Venezuelans rejected his attempt to abolish term limits, and critics say he is resorting to browbeating and smears for fear his candidates will lose.

“He has unleashed a wave of intimidation,” said Manuel Rosales, the opposition governor of Zulia state.

Mr. Rosales, who has a good chance of defeating the Chavez candidate for mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city, said the socialist leader “wants to wipe out and criminalize Venezuela’s opposition, or those who don’t think like he does, to attempt a constitutional reform allowing him to remain in power.”

During a fiery speech to supporters Tuesday, Mr. Chavez threatened to shut down any television stations that broadcast early election results and said he has ordered secret police “to keep a close eye on” Mr. Rosales.

“That criminal must go to prison,” Mr. Chavez thundered, noting that Mr. Rosales has been repeatedly accused of graft. “There’s evidence. They are not unfounded attacks.”

Mr. Chavez also has threatened to cut off national funds and send tanks into the streets of states that end up in the hands of opponents, and he ordered soldiers to temporarily seize an airport in a dispute with the opposition governor of Sucre state. Chavez supporters cheered the seizure - and then looted the offices of an opposition mayor the next day.

“This is an armed revolution, and the people are willing to defend the revolutionary process,” the socialist leader warned last week as he predicted a violent opposition response to his allies’ victories.

Chavez allies deny any government-organized effort to intimidate opponents.

But rival politicians, media personalities and other critics blame the president for the bullying by pro-Chavez thugs, campaign-season criminal investigations and bureaucratic nightmares such as hours-long interrogations by immigration officers at airports.

Authorities say these are routine immigration procedures, but Venezuelan sociology professor Heinz Sontag, who belongs to the opposition 2-D Movement, blames Mr. Chavez for the annulment of his valid passport when he returned from a trip last month. “I think he perceives growing discontent, and he is reacting with rage,” Mr. Sontag said.

Mr. Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel who has been in office since 1999, still has broad support despite the loss of a constitutional referendum that would have expanded his power and scrapped term limits that bar him from running in 2012.

His allies swept the last state elections in 2004, winning all but two of 23 governorships and a majority of local offices. This time candidates are competing for 22 governorships and 328 mayoral posts, and the opposition is hoping to regain lost ground.