Venezuela opposition votes on Chavez challenger
CARACAS: Venezuela‘s united opposition voted Sunday in a first-ever primary which was expected to see youthful state governor Henrique Capriles chosen to challenge President Hugo Chavez in an October election.
Balloting was extended for an hour to 2130 GMT at some 7,600 polling stations nationwide.
Five candidates are running in the opposition contest led by Capriles, 39, the energetic governor of Miranda state and frontrunner, according to surveys.
“Let no one leave without voting,” said Capriles after casting his ballot in Caracas.
“Today … we will exceed all expectations in terms of voter participation, we are expecting an extraordinary turnout.”
The opposition is joining forces in an effort to defeat Chavez, a firebrand ally of Cuba and harsh critic of the United States who has been criticized for jailing political opponents and restricting media opposition.
The 57-year-old Chavez, who last year underwent chemotherapy in Caracas and Havana and now claims to be cancer-free, is seeking a third six-year term in the October 7 vote. But he faces challenges from rising crime and corruption and the drop from record highs in oil prices, the country’s main revenue source.
Capriles, telegenic and energetic, has been in politics since he was 25. His campaign got a boost last month when Leopoldo Lopez, a popular former mayor, dropped out and endorsed him.
He describes his politics as center-left, and has argued that Venezuela can “replicate” Brazil’s model of economic development: allowing markets to play their role while also making social progress a priority.
The opposition favorite’s main rival in the ballot is Pablo Perez, 42, of the Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era) party. Perez governs Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous and wealthiest state.
Both Perez and Capriles say they want to end the country’s deep political polarization and have pledged to fight poverty.
They have campaigned with a conciliatory message and have avoided directly criticizing Chavez, the main political and economic ally of Cuba, the only one-party communist regime in the Americas.