Venezuela’s united opposition holds a first-ever presidential primary tomorrow to pick its standard bearer to take on incumbent Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in an October ballot.
The open primary, the first of its kind in the country, will gauge the momentum of support for the opposition Democratic Unity coalition eight months before a showdown with Chavez, the firebrand left-wing leader in power since 1999.
Capriles, a 39-year-old moderate state governor from the center-left Primero Justicia (Justice First) party, currently leads in the polls.
Single and with movie star looks, he governs Miranda State, which includes parts of the Caracas metropolitan area. Capriles’ chances were boosted last month when Leopoldo Lopez, a popular former mayor, dropped out of the race and endorsed him.
Capriles’ main rival is Pablo Perez, 42, of the Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era) party. Perez is governor of Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous and wealthiest state.
Both Perez and Capriles say they want to end the country’s deep political polarization and they have pledged to fight poverty. Both have campaigned with a conciliatory message and have avoided directly criticizing Chavez.
They also propose continuing and improving the popular social programs adopted by the Chavez government since 2003, notably in the areas of health and housing.
The other candidates in the race are independent legislator Maria Corina Machado, labor leader Pablo Medina and former ambassador Diego Arria. Unlike the governors, this trio has chosen to aggressively challenge Chavez.
Last month, the opposition parties unveiled a unity platform focusing on free-market economics and emphasizing public safety.
Their manifesto includes an end to price controls, in place since 2003; adopting a competitive currency exchange rate; reassessing Chavez’ creation of a socialist state; and returning autonomy to the central bank.
The historically divided opposition formed the coalition to compete with Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela in the 2010 legislative elections. The opposition won more than 50 percent of the popular vote.
A staunch critic of the US, Chavez is the main political and economic ally of Cuba, the only one-party communist regime in the Americas.
He has also offered support for other left-wing governments across Latin America.
Capriles says his presidency would inaugurate a “cycle of progress” in Venezuela by using the same model that led to Brazil’s economic boom. He also promises to address Venezuela’s biggest problems, including a dearth of housing, a soaring crime rate and a 28 percent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America.
Like Capriles, Perez said he does not plan to roll back all of Chavez’s policies.
Capriles and Perez have emerged “as favorites precisely because they sought to depolarize the country and refrained from confronting Chavez,” historian Margarita Lopez Maya said. “It’s apparently an electoral strategy that works.”