Opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez bowed out of Venezuela’s presidential race, saying he will support his leading rival as the opposition seeks to field a single candidate to challenge President Hugo Chavez.
The announcement gives a significant boost to Henrique Capriles, the youthful 39-year-old state governor who has a commanding lead in the polls ahead of the February 12 opposition primary.
It also shakes up the field of five remaining contenders in the primary, which will choose a unity candidate to face Mr Chavez in the October 7 election.
“You will be the next president,” Mr Lopez said at a news conference with Mr Capriles. The two embraced and raised their arms before a cheering crowd.
“In me, he will have a great ally,” said Mr Lopez, who is on a list of hundreds of politicians barred from holding office in the past decade due to corruption investigations. He calls the probe politically motivated.
Recent polls show Mr Chavez’s popularity slightly above 50%, down from the 63% support he received in 2006 elections, emboldening Venezuela’s opposition, which in the past has been splintered and disorganised in its challenges to the socialist president.
Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said the opposition is seeing its “best moment” politically.
Mr Capriles’ support has been above 40% among likely opposition voters in recent polls, and will likely pick up a significant share of Mr Lopez’s support, Mr Leon said.
Mr Lopez, a former mayor of Caracas’ Chacao district, had been trailing among opposition contenders in recent polls, with one recent survey giving him 16% support.
Mr Lopez said that with his departure, “unity is strengthened” within the opposition.
The athletic Mr Capriles has captured support among Venezuelans by presenting himself as a capable manager and pledging to solve problems such as rampant crime, unemployment and 27-% inflation.
Mr Capriles has tended to avoid direct verbal confrontations with Mr Chavez and has described his politics as centre-left.
He likens his approach to that of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who promoted pro-business policies while funding social programmes that made him popular among the poor.
Others running in the February 12 primary include congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, and Pablo Medina, a leftist former union leader.
Mr Chavez has been in office for 13 years and is seeking another six-year term in the October election. He has sought to portray his opponents as allies of the wealthy and the US government.
“The candidate of the counterrevolution, whoever it is... is going to be the candidate of the Yankees,” Mr Chavez said in a speech, without referring to any of his potential challengers by name.
“He’s going to be the candidate of the bourgeoisie.”