Fri, Aug 11, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Rosales gaining support to face Chavez

NEW US FRIEND?Manuel Rosales, increasing the most likely contender in Venezuela's elections this December, has echoed US criticisms of the country's leftist president

AP , CARACAS

Several opposition candidates threw their support behind a popular state governor as their top choice to challenge Venezue-lan President Hugo Chavez in December, calling off their primary election.

The pullout of eight candidates on Wednesday prompted the cancellation of this Sunday's vote and cleared the way for Zulia state Governor Manuel Rosales to face Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and is seeking a third term that would keep him in office through 2012.

"I will be the president of all Venezuelans regardless of their differences," Rosales told a cheering crowd, referring to complaints that Chavez has polarized society, stoking divisions between his poor supporters and the top end of town.

Rosales, 54, accused Chavez of overspending on a military buildup and pledged that if elected on Dec. 3, he would use Venezuela's oil wealth to help the poor and improve education and health care.

"We will exchange warplanes for hospitals, tanks for schools and universities, missiles for preschools," he said.

The opposition has called Chavez's spending on Russian warplanes and other weapons a waste. Chavez, who regularly clashes with the US, has said Venezuela must be prepared to defend itself against the US and has built close ties with Iran and North Korea.

Rosales ridiculed Chavez's claims of a possible war with the US and said Venezuela's real war should be against rampant street crime.

"We aren't going to have fantasy wars," he told reporters. "Our only war will be against crime ... against drug traffickers, against [Colombian] guerrillas."

Rosales appeared to echo criticisms by the US government, which has accused Chavez's government of being uncooperative against drug smuggling and having an "ideological affinity" with leftist Colombian rebels. Chavez has called those false claims with political motivations.

Rosales spoke after Julio Borges, a conservative lawyer who leads the party Justice First, announced that he and other leading opposition candidates had decided to back Rosales.

"For all who love this country, today is the day to put aside personal ambitions and think about the unity of Venezuela," Borges said. "Mr Manuel Rosales, count on all of us. I offer my support, the support of my party and that of my generation to you."

On Friday, another leading opposition candidate, newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff, also dropped out in favor of a single candidate.

Rosales said nine rival candidates had officially decided to back him, including Petkoff. He made the announcement a day after the elections council ruled that he must temporarily step down from his post as governor to continue in the race, but could return to that position if he loses.

Sumate, a non-governmental organization backed by the US that had planned to administer Sunday's opposition primary, confirmed that the vote was off.

"Unity was achieved by another method," Sumate leader Alejandro Plaz said.

Rosales, who leads his own small party, A New Time, is one of the few anti-Chavez politicians to head a state government. A former mayor of Maracaibo, he was elected governor of the western state in both 2000 and 2004, even as allies of Chavez swept state governorships and National Assembly seats.

He remains widely popular in Zulia, which has the second-largest concentration of voters after Caracas. Recent polls had shown Rosales leading Borges. However both had lagged far behind Chavez, who majority support.

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