Political opponents of Hugo Chavez called off their primary election and joined forces behind a popular state governor as their top choice to challenge the Venezuelan president in December.
The pull-out of eight candidates prompted the cancellation of Sunday’s primary 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 until 2012.
“I will be the president of all Venezuelans regardless of their differences,” Rosales told a cheering crowd in Caracas, referring to complaints that Chavez had polarised society, stoking divisions between his poor supporters and wealthier opponents.
Rosales, 54, accused Chavez of overspending on a military build-up and pledged that if elected on December 3, he would use Venezuela’s oil wealth to help the poor and improve education and healthcare.
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 said. “Our only war will be against crime…against drug-traffickers, against (Colombian) guerillas.”
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 left-wing Colombian rebels. Chavez says these are 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.”
Rosales began his political career in the 1970s as a councillor in his home town of Santa Barbara del Zulia in the cattle-ranching plains of western Venezuela.
He now leads his own small party, A New Time, and 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, the capital.
Recent polls had shown Rosales leading Borges. However both lag far behind Chavez, who, according to recent surveys, has the support of a clear majority of Venezuelans.