Venezuela's opposition unites around Capriles. Can he beat Chavez?

A record turnout of nearly 3 million people voted in Venezuela's opposition presidential primary yesterday, selecting Henrique Capriles Radonski as the candidate.

Jorge Silva/REUTERS
Opposition frontrunner presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski speaks to the foreign media in Caracas, Venezuela February 7.

The results of Venezuela’s opposition-party presidential primary, the first of its kind, was no great surprise. Youthful state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski was ahead in the polls, and won by a landslide with about two thirds of all votes.

What was surprising, however, was how many Venezuelans showed up to vote – almost 3 million people, or about one-fifth of the electorate, reports Venezuelan guest blogger Miguel Octavio. (Mr. Octavio also ran a series of photos on of Venezuelans voting abroad, from Miami to Milan, Austria to Australia.)

Mr. Capriles said last week that he hoped for at least two million voters. This larger-than-expected turnout buoys his bid to unseat President Hugo Chavez in the Oct. 7 presidential elections.  

The turnout is a sign that the historically divided opposition – which boycotted legislative elections in 2005, leaving President Chavez with vast powers – has finally come together in an effort to unseat 13 years of Chavez-style socialism in the country.

"Today, the future of Venezuela won and, as we said, we repeat to everyone: there is a path, there is a path for progress, for the future, to make Venezuela a greater country,” Capriles said upon his victory last night.

Many analysts say Chavez is as vulnerable as ever. He has been in office since 1999, which means he is blamed (largely by the upper and middle classes) for many of the country's most intractable problems: high crime, inflation, and spending on social welfare programs to woo voters, while ignoring the fundamental economic problems in the country.

Still Capriles now faces his biggest challenge yet. He was favored in the primary because he was seen as the most capable of drawing votes from the poor in Venezuela, a group that forms the base of Chavez’s support. But few have the charisma of Chavez, or his stamina. Reuters reports that he recently gave a record breaking speech for 9.5 hours to Venezuela's congress – while simultaneously recuperating from surgery.

In an interview with the Monitor in January, Capriles said it was possible to focus on the poor, as Chavez did after the perception of years of neglect on the part of previous governments, while putting the economy back on track. “I'm in a process of constructing a political change,” he said.

Despite the large turnout for the opposition primaries, Chavez retains wide support in the country, and polls put him as the favorite in the October race. He controls the nation’s coffers and institutions, including a vast media network, and after yesterday's opposition primary, those outlets painting Capriles as “right wing” last night, reports Reuters.

The five contenders in Venezuela’s opposition were united in their desire to beat Chavez but their politics were nuanced. Chavez dismissed all, however, as the candidates of “imperialism.” Those messages might resonate among many of his supporters who fear a return of the past, when they say they were excluded as politicians favored the country's elite.

But Capriles is now trying to turn the exclusion argument on its head, saying that he will be the one to unite the nation.  “The message is very clear: Venezuelans are fed up with confrontation and divisions,” he said last night.

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