Another 'Lula' on the rise in Venezuela?

A primary election in Venezuela today looks set to elevate Henrique Capriles Radonski, a politician who models himself after a former Brazilian president, as the main challenger to Hugo Chavez.

Jorge Silva/Reuters
Henrique Capriles Radonski, Venezuela's main opposition candidate, speaks to reporters last week.

Venezuelans are at the polls today voting to select an opposition candidate to face off against President Hugo Chavez in Oct. 7 elections.

To many observers, the upcoming race is the best chance that the historically divided opposition has of defeating the popular President Chavez, who has been in office for 13 years.

Polls have the charismatic state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who rides motorbikes into the poor barrios of the capital, as the frontrunner in today's primary – and the challenger that Chavez should most fear.

In an interview with the Monitor earlier this year,  Mr. Capriles said a new political model is possible in Venezuela – one that blends a commitment to helping the poor while still focusing on economic growth.  “I'm in a process of constructing a political change,” he said. “I don't represent the old establishment.”

“If you don't understand the social reality of this country, you're dead,” Capriles went on to say. And like many Latin American leaders seeking office, he is attempting to capitalize on the popularity of the policies of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.  “I 100 percent follow the model of Lula,” said Capriles.

Chavez has been in office since 1999, voted in with the help of the middle class and the poor who were sick of the old elite. With a windfall from high oil prices in the OPEC county, Chavez was able to invest billions in social programs for the poor. He has remained wildly popular, pushing through constitutional changes and winning office in landslides.

But the weariness that comes with any long-time rule has started to impact his popularity. He has also been accused of focusing on the poor for electoral support while the economy suffers, with the highest inflation rate in the region. Caracas has also become exceedingly dangerous. The nation was stunned last year when he announced that he had cancer. Though he says he is better, his illness might impact the image of “invincibility” that once surrounded him.

More than anything, the opposition, which has languished amid internal squabbling and accusations of being out of touch with regular Venezuelans, has finally come together.

While Capriles has led the primary race, his greatest challenger today is Pablo Perez, another state governor from Zulia. The other three candidates in the race are congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, Diego Arria, a former UN official, and Pablo Medina, a former Chavez ally.

See this Reuters “facts” page for full background on all five candidates. 

No matter who wins today, he or she will face an uphill battle to the highest office in Venezuela – but perhaps for the first time in over a decade Venezuela will have a race this October without a foregone conclusion.

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