Venezuelans to choose Chavez rival

Venezuelans yesterday voted in the country’s first-ever opposition presidential primary, choosing a single challenger they hope will have what it takes to defeat President Hugo Chavez after 13 years in office.

Henrique Capriles, the front-runner among five contenders, predicted a high turnout. “Today is a day for Venezuelans’ future,” he said after voting.

Opposition supporters seemed less interested in the proposals put forth by the contenders than their chances of defeating Chavez in the October election.

The outcome will set the stage for what many see as the most anticipated presidential contest since Chavez’s first triumph in 1998. Venezuelans are eager to see who will emerge as challenger. For government foes, the primary results are vital to their efforts to unseat the president.

Chavez proved himself a tireless campaigner as he easily sailed to victories in 1998, 2000 and 2006. As the election nears, Chavez has said he is itching for a fight. He spent the day presiding over a parade in honour of the “Day of Revolutionary Youth” in Aragua state, wearing the presidential sash and applauding as supporters marched past.

In his marathon televised addresses, Chavez has insisted it does not matter who emerges as the opposition’s candidate because he is 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 the US. Still, lines formed at polling stations in some poor neighbourhoods of Caracas — many traditional Chavez strongholds.

Capriles has narrowed the gap behind Chavez to single digits in recent polls and is leading the opposition pack with about 40% support.

Perez was trailing Capriles by about 10 percentage points in pre-election polls, with three other candidates garnering modest support.

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

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