Chávez opponent can run for president, but can't take office, says court

Venezuela's Supreme Court said that opposition leader Leopoldo López can't take office, even if he beats Hugo Chávez in next year's presidential race, despite an international court ruling otherwise.

Fernando Llano/AP/File
Supporters of opposition leader Leopoldo López hold up campaign posters at a rally where López announced his presidential bid, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sept. 24.

A popular Venezuelan opposition leader is able to run for president but will not be allowed to take power if elected, thanks to a decision made by the country’s Supreme Court. The move disregards an international court ruling and could help President Hugo Chávez split an already fragmented opposition before next year’s vote.

Leopoldo López has been fighting the government’s decision to ban him from public office for three years, having taken his case to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in February. The Costa Rica-based court ruled in his favor a month ago. However, Venezuela’s Supreme Court has defied the decision, insisting that Mr. López is free to run but not free to take any public office should he win.

However, he remains rebellious. “I am a candidate,” López told the Monitor. “I will run and I will win the primaries.”

López has already fought long and hard for what may ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory for the opposition. His defiance will worry many opposed to Mr. Chávez who were looking forward to the selection of Henrique Capriles Radonski – a state governor who appears to be Chávez’s first real competition during 12 years in power – in February’s primaries ready for elections less than a year away.

López insists that his decision to run will not jeopardize opposition unity. “This is a decision in the hands of the people,” López said, dodging suggestions that by continuing his campaign, he will add to the opposition’s notorious lack of unity and organization.

The news has forced a risky situation for López's supporters, according to Luis Vicente Leon, a local political analyst and president of polling firm Datanalisis. “This is absolutely stupid,” he said. “The people may favor López but they have to avoid any risk [of his being ineligible for office] so they will not want to vote for him in the primaries.”

López suffers from allegations of corruption, though he has never faced trial, which has led some to suspect that the disqualification is politically motivated. The charges stem from the late 1990s when López’s mother was in charge of state oil firm Petróleos de Venezuela’s public affairs office. Part of her job was to authorize donations to charities and civic groups. One grant went to Primero Justicia (Justice First), a judicial reform advocacy group and political movement to which her son belonged.

López was mayor of Chacao, a wealthy Caracas neighborhood for two terms beginning in 2000. As his tenure came to an end in 2008, López looked set to win the mayoralty of Caracas with a 65 percent lead in the polls. But the Venezuelan government declared him “inhabilitado” – ineligible for public office – along with 300 other Venezuelan politicians.

The presidential race has been ramped up by rumors of the president’s ill health. Despite chemotherapy and repeated rumors that Chávez is much worse than is being made out, he continues playing up his indefatigable public persona by calling up state television, tweeting regularly, and theatrically parading in front of the press at every opportunity.

The presidential election is set for Oct. 7, 2012.

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