Venezuelans vote to choose Chavez's challenger

CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER Associated Press Published:

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelans lined up to vote on Sunday in the country's first-ever opposition presidential primary, choosing a single challenger they hope will have what it takes to finally defeat President Hugo Chavez after 13 years in office.

Opposition supporters seemed less interested in the proposals put forth by the five candidates competing in Sunday's vote than their chances of defeating Chavez in October's looming presidential election.

The outcome will set the stage for what many are billing as the most anticipated presidential vote since Chavez's first triumph in 1998, and Venezuelans on both sides of the nation's political gap are eager to see who will emerge as the challenger.

"I think this time there will be a change," said Edgar Arvais, a 57-year-old engineer who emerged from a polling station at a school after casting his ballot for Zulia state Gov. Pablo Perez. He said crime and a weak economy are top concerns, and the opposition this time is "very strong, very determined."

Carmen Gloria Padilla, a 66-year-old telephone company employee, said she was voting for the opposition's front-runner, Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles.

"He's going to be the candidate who can get us out of this giant hole we're stuck in," Padilla said.

For government foes, the primary results are vital to their efforts to unseat Chavez, an aim for which many have been yearning for more than a decade, and it appears to be a daunting task.

"I don't care who wins," snapped Gloria Muchacho, a 45-year-old housewife who hates when Chavez interrupts her soap operas with hours-long televised speeches that all channels are required to broadcast. "I just want them to get him out, he must go."

Chavez, however, proved himself a tireless campaigner as he easily sailed to election victories in 1998, 2000 and 2006. As the election season heats up, Chavez has said he's itching for a fight.

During public events and marathon televised addresses, Chavez insists it doesn't matter who emerges as the opposition's candidate because he's confident none of his rivals are capable of beating him. He repeatedly taunts would-be challengers, portraying them as agents of Venezuela's wealthy elite and Washington.

"These candidates are the empire's candidates," Chavez told thousands of supporters at a rally this month in Catia, which is a government stronghold. "We are going to give the unpatriotic bourgeoisie a beating."

Many in Catia have benefited from Chavez's social programs, which the government says are improving living conditions for the country's poor majority.

"They aren't interested in helping the poor, they only want to get rid of Chavez," said Miriam Colmenares, a 57-year-old street vendor, of the opposition candidates. She said she has helped Chavez's ruling party organize voters for the Oct. 7 presidential vote and was handing out leaflets this past week to pedestrians in Catia's palm tree-dotted plaza. "Chavez cares about us, and we are going to defend him."

But Colmenares, like many "Chavistas," confesses she's fearful "El Comandante" could be in danger this year.

Capriles has narrowed the gap behind Chavez to single digits in recent polls and is leading the opposition pack with about 40 percent support. Perez was trailing Capriles by about 10 percentage points in pre-election polls, with three other candidates garnering modest support.

Voters in the primary elections were also picking opposition candidates for other offices, including 17 state governor posts.

Several voters said they're optimistic the primary winner will have a strong shot at beating Chavez because the opposition is more united than in the past.

Isabel Gomez, a 59-year-old lawyer, said she thinks a young and energetic candidate such as Capriles will appeal to voters more than an older president who has struggled with cancer. Chavez says he is cancer-free after undergoing chemotherapy, but doubts linger among some Venezuelans.

"I think people want a healthy president," Gomez said. As for the elections this year, she said, "it's the last chance we have .... to achieve an opposition win and have democracy in this country."

Presidential contender Maria Corina Machado, a congresswoman who has taken a hard line against Chavez, said she had heard from some government employees that they were afraid of possible repercussions if they vote.

"Don't be afraid," Machado said on television as she arrived to cast her ballot. "The government isn't going to know how you voted, but your children will and you will know for the rest of your life."

Despite lingering differences, the opposition candidates, along with many of their supporters, will likely throw their support behind whoever the winner is, driven by the conviction that Chavez's challenger will need an active, unified opposition movement backing him, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

"The opposition is more unified than it has been in many years," Shifter said. "To have a good chance of defeating Chavez, the losers in the primary election will not only have to unite behind a single candidate, but will have to do so enthusiastically and energetically."

Nonetheless, even some of Chavez's most fervent foes are skeptical a unified opposition movement will be enough to oust Chavez.

Wendy Arias, a 55-year-old secretary who works in the capital's upscale El Rosal business district, said Chavez may ride to victory solely because he remains popular among the poor -- his main constituency.

"I don't like to say it, and I don't understand why, but it's true the president is still popular with people in the slums," Arias said, sipping espresso in a cafe and chatting with co-workers about politics.

"And if the opposition starts infighting ahead of the vote, there's no chance of a victory," added Arias, who accuses Chavez of dangerously splitting this oil-rich country along class lines.

Her words prompted nods of agreement from friends at the table.

Many voters said they think it will be key for Chavez's challenger to target poor voters and also not to take an overly hard line against Chavez, because such an approach hasn't worked well in the past.

Chavez endears many Venezuelans with his folksy, humorous personality, and gained millions of backers by starting social programs for the poor, building low-income housing, offering low-interest loans to cash-strapped farmers and confronting the United States -- a proven means of boosting nationalistic sentiment among citizens and the country's leftists.

But he's also given adversaries many reasons to loathe him: His government's expropriations of buildings, parking lots and farmland have angered many Venezuelans who claim private property rights have been violated. The president's failure to tackle rampant crime has angered relatives of tens of thousands of murder victims. Others accuse Chavez of wasting this oil-rich country's wealth during years of high world prices on populist programs and regional efforts to win political support, rather than helping the country develop.

And his crude manner of dealing with critics irks Venezuelans who recall the days when political opponents were seen as rivals rather than enemies.

"He doesn't care about Venezuelans, just those who are willing to vote for him," said Nancy Sanchez, a 34-year-old single mother whose husband started driving a taxi three years ago as increasing numbers of businesses shuttered.

Many Chavez supporters, however, argue that the president is simply unbeatable.

"None of them have what it takes to defeat Chavez," said Rodrigo Mijares, a 34-year-old taxi driver from the capital's poor, crime-ridden San Agustin neighborhood. "None of them have the appeal that Chavez uses to charm and captivate voters."

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Associated Press writer Ian James in Caracas contributed to this report.