Young governor to battle Chavez in poll
Caracas - Youthful state governor Henrique Capriles on Sunday decisively won Venezuela's first opposition primary and will challenge longtime President Hugo Chavez in an October election, vote officials said.
"With 95% of votes counted, Capriles won 1.8 million votes" ahead of his closest competitor, governor Pablo Perez, with 867 000 votes, commission president Teresa Albanes said, noting that 2.9 million votes were cast in a first-ever primary to pick a unity candidate.
Analysts had said a turnout of just 10% of the 18 million eligible voters - or 1.8 million - would be seen as a success, indicating voters in this highly polarised South American nation were keen to be heard.
Five candidates ran in the contest won by the 39-year-old Capriles. In third place was lawmaker Maria Corina Machado with 103 500 votes, followed by diplomat Diego Arria (35 070) and ex union organiser Pablo Medina (14 009).
The opposition joined forces in an effort to defeat Chavez, a leftist firebrand ally of Cuba and harsh critic of the United States who has been criticised for jailing political opponents and restricting media opposition.
The 57-year-old Chavez, who last year underwent cancer surgery in Havana and now claims to be cancer-free, is seeking a third six-year term in the October 7 vote. But he faces challenges, from rising crime and corruption to the drop from record highs in oil prices, the country's main revenue source.
Capriles, telegenic and energetic, has been in politics since he was 25. His campaign got a boost last month when Leopoldo Lopez, a popular former mayor, dropped out and endorsed him.
He describes his politics as center-left, and has argued that Venezuela can "replicate" Brazil's model of economic development: Allowing markets to play their role while also making social progress a priority.
Perez, aged 42, is with the Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era) party, and governs Zulia, Venezuela's most populous and wealthiest state.
Capriles says he wants to end the country's deep political polarisation and has pledged to fight poverty.
He also campaigned with a conciliatory message and avoided directly criticising Chavez, the main political and economic ally of Cuba, the only one-party communist regime in the Americas.
Unlike the governors, the other three candidates had aggressively challenged Chavez.
A lawyer with movie-star looks whose family includes Jewish immigrants, Capriles would seem to embody a generational change as well as a political one.
Capriles and Perez emerged in recent months as favorites "precisely because they sought to depolarise the country and refrained from confronting Chavez", said historian Margarita Lopez Maya.
Many of those going to the polls welcome the opportunity.
"We want a change. I have always voted here against the government," said 35-year-old shopkeeper Alexis Mendoza.
"I'm voting for my country, for the future, for democracy and freedom," added 45-year-old bank employee Jose Luis Maldonado, who said he believed government officials were taking pictures of voters to try to intimidate them.
In January, the opposition parties unveiled a unity platform focusing on free-market economics and emphasising public safety.
The document calls for an end to price controls in place since 2003; adoption of a competitive currency exchange rate; reassessing Chavez's creation of a socialist state; and returning autonomy to the central bank.