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Can Venezuela's anti-Chávez politicians unite?

As Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's health and future look uncertain, the political opposition plans to back a single candidate to oppose him in next year's presidential election.

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Lopez and many others say the case was politically motivated to neutralize a potential opponent to Chávez. Lopez is fighting the case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and expects a verdict by September. If he wins, he will officially throw his hat in the presidential ring.

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Other potential candidates include Henrique Capriles, the governor of Venezuela's second-largest state, and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who waged a hunger strike to protest Chávez's moves to strip city and state officials of their authority.

Mr. Capriles has emerged in some polls as Venezuela's most popular politician, polling ahead of even Chávez, whose popularity has been steadily undercut by persistently high crime, double-digit inflation, shortages, and recurring power outages.

"[Chávez] has in his hands all the tools to make this country function, and if he did so everyone would support him," says Josefina Arias, a vendor who describes herself as a former Chávez supporter. "Unfortunately, I believe that Chávez has lost his vision of what Venezuela could be."

Ms. Arias was in the provincial capital of Los Teques with hundreds of others to receive state-funded vouchers from Capriles worth about $3,000 to repair rain-damaged homes.

Capriles says his nonideological focus on fixing everyday problems has helped him gain votes in traditional Chávez strongholds. "I'm first in the polls because I want what the people want: a new leadership based on unity, a government that is equally for everyone," says Capriles.

Both Lopez and Capriles point to last September's legislative elections in which opposition candidates received more votes than Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela as proof that the electoral tide is turning in their favor.

Despite the opposition's popular win, Chávez assigned more electoral weight to sparsely populated regions, assuring his party's dominance in the National Assembly.

"Chávez has won through elections, but his daily maneuvering isn't democratic," Capriles says. "The challenge is to democratically overcome a government that isn't democratic."

Many observers wonder whether the unity will hold, but both Capriles and Lopez say they are certain the primary results will be respected by the other opposition hopefuls, saying it would be "political suicide" to run against whoever wins the primary.

The real challenge, says Lopez, will be maintaining an equilibrium between honest competition among very different options and maintaining a fragile unity that everyone recognizes is the key to winning. The potential for victory is too great to ignore, he believes, and will keep everyone focused and committed.

"The day after the primaries, we will have 335 candidates for mayor, 24 for governor, and one for president hitting the streets of the nation as a monolithic bloc," says Lopez, "which will undoubtedly uphold the political and emotional unity of all Venezuelans."

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