Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shows a picture of a metro tunnel wall with an image which he says is the face of late President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas Oct. 30, 2013. Photographer: Landov
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shows a picture of a metro tunnel wall with an image which he says is the face of late President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas Oct. 30, 2013. Photographer: Landov

To Americans and other foreign observers, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro may appear to be losing his grasp on reality. How else to explain his recent plan to defend against enemy attacks by installing anti-aircraft weapons in the slums around Caracas, or his insistence that workers in a subway tunnel saw the face of former strongman Hugo Chavez?

But if one takes a deeper look at what is happening in the run-up to nationwide municipal elections on Dec. 8, these bizarre incidents are part of the president's campaign plan to make sure his party wins most municipalities, despite his weak mandate.

Shining through his antics is a formula for how a populist politician wins and holds on to power:

1. Make the poor feel powerful.

Maduro, like his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez, understands the importance of giving voters the illusion of strength. This explains why the president has publicly backed Brazil and Germany’s denunciations of U.S. digital espionage, and why he vowed last week to install those anti-aircraft weapons systems to defend people in slums against “imperialist” enemies. Thumbing your nose at the U.S. and preparing for non-existent invaders is a surefire way to win hard-left supporters.

2. Foster a cult-like aura.

In a nation of deeply religious people, embracing religious-like symbolism is a winning strategy. Maduro’s recent claim that an image of Chavez appeared to diggers in a tunnel wall may seem a distasteful ghost story to many, but it gives hope to those who idolized the dead leader. Cuba’s Fidel Castro turned Che Guevara into a venerated icon, whose image teenagers now wear on t-shirts. Many leftist regimes gain power by appealing not to people's logic but to their spirituality.

3. Invent new enemies.

State-induced paranoia can be a powerful political weapon. Maduro recently accused Twitter and the international right wing of trying to destabilize his government by erasing about 6,600 followers from his account. Last week he denounced a “silent war” to undermine his government allegedly led by U.S. and Colombian organizations in conjunction with the Venezuelan opposition. That on top of Maduro's accusation last spring that former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was plotting to kill him. Appearing to defend people from one or more boogey men can earn a leader political support.

4. Govern through short-term fixes.

Populist politics dictates that if something is broken, you mend it, not fix it. The new task force to fight product hoarding and speculation that Maduro announced last week and the National Foreign Trade Center he set up to more tightly manage imports and foreign currency do nothing to loosen the government-regulation noose that has choked businesses for years. But the measures offer the appearance of good governance. Sound economic policy in an oil-rich nation forces people to sacrifice. And making people sacrifice equals fewer votes.

5. Make Christmas come early.

Literally. In an oil rich nation, the politician who gives the biggest handout wins. Maduro understands this, which is probably why he decided to make workers happy by giving them their Christmas bonuses almost a month early, just ahead of the Dec. 8 election. This is the same type of happiness for the masses Maduro had in mind when he recently ordered the military occupation of electronics chain Daka so items could be sold to the public at firesale prices, and created the "Vice Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness," in charge of managing the subsidies and other handout programs popular with his supporters. Even in a socialist inspired revolution like Venezuela’s money beats ideology any day.

Maduro’s populist playbook certainly keeps people entertained. Generous government spending and regular distractions make it possible for Venezuelans to endure 54 percent annual inflation -- the highest in 16 years -- and the long lines that result when consumers try to buy products that suffer from recurring shortages. In a world of low expectations, where democracy is just a catchphrase, some bread and political drama can keep a government in power.

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter. E-mail him at rgallegos5@bloomberg.net.)