Venezuelans: Will Chavez's challenger pose threat?

CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER Associated Press Published:

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- With Venezuela's first-ever opposition primary set to begin, allies and adversaries of President Hugo Chavez are focused on one burning question: Will the winner have what is takes to defeat a shrewd and charismatic leader who thrives during election campaigns?

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

The outcome of Sunday's vote 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.

"This could be the closest election in many years, it's the first time Chavez could lose," said Alfredo Hernandez, a burly 57-year-old auto mechanic drinking a cold beer at the entrance to a garage in Catia, part of gritty downtown Caracas. "That's why we are all so excited."

Hernandez said he plans to vote for the opposition front-runner, Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles.

For government foes, the primary results are vital to their efforts to unseat Chavez -- an event many have been desperately yearning for more than a decade, and 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, has 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 looming 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. Zulia state Gov. Pablo Perez trails Capriles by about 10 percentage points in the opposition primary, with another three candidates garnering modest support.

Some analysts have said Capriles could see a boost from an endorsement by former candidate Leopoldo Lopez, who bowed out of the race last month.

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.

Chavez endears many Venezuelans with his folksy, humorous personality, and gained millions of backers by implementing 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 the wealth created from high world oil prices on populist programs and building his political support in the region, 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 because cannot find a job as increasing numbers of businesses are shuttered.

Many Chavez supporters, however, argue Chavez 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 appeal that Chavez uses to charms and captivate voters."