Youthful challenger takes on Chavez in Venezuela

2012-02-14 07:29

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles on Monday called for "balanced elections" and criticized the use of government money and slanted coverage in state media as President Hugo Chavez seeks re-election.

Capriles is expected to face a tough race against Chavez, who even after 13 years in office remains a hero to many of his supporters and maintains a visceral connection to a significant segment of the poor in Venezuela. Chavez also will likely use a bonanza of public spending as he seeks re-election in the Oct. 7 presidential election.

Capriles complained that government-run television coverage is tilted against him.

"Let's have some balanced elections," Capriles said at a news conference a day after handily winning the opposition's first-ever presidential primary.

The 39-year-old candidate, who is governor of Miranda state, also strongly criticized Chavez's economic policies. He condemned the government's expropriations of hundreds of businesses, apartment buildings and farms over the past decade.

"All the expropriations have been a failure," Capriles said. "The companies that have been seized by the state must be reviewed one by one."

He said some of those businesses could be privatized if he defeats Chavez.

Capriles warned that newly stiffened price controls won't work and predicted many items will become scarce. He said deodorant could start to vanish from stores, laughing as he said that Venezuelans might need to start to live with body odor.

Capriles touted the turnout of about 3 million ballots cast out of 18 million registered voters as a major achievement.

"Venezuela woke up with a new political reality," Capriles said.

Vice President Elias Jaua said that it was positive for the opposition to have recognized the authority of the National Electoral Council. Some Chavez opponents have questioned its independence in the past.

"We hope that this same recognition exists Oct. 7 when Hugo Chavez wins the elections," Jaua said on state television. He said the opposition should respect the electoral council as an impartial arbiter, as well as the role the military will play in maintaining security during the vote.

Chavez has said no one can question the fairness of the country's electoral system, and that his government's spending is aimed at promoting the country's development and addressing the needs of Venezuelans.

About 16 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the primary, far surpassing the opposition's goal of 10 percent to 12 percent.

Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente Leon called the turnout historic, both for the opposition and for the country. He said previous primaries by Chavez's party haven't drawn so many voters.

Venezuela has grown heavily polarized, with most either admiring or despising Chavez. About one-fourth of voters are in neither political camp, though, and in that group about 10 to 15 percent are likely to cast ballots, Leon said. Many of the swing voters are young people who have grown up during Chavez's presidency, Leon said.

In order to compete, Capriles will likely need to win over voters who leaned pro-Chavez in the past, who have grown disillusioned with the government and don't strongly identify with either side.

Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the opposition seems to be on solid footing.

"They have a charismatic, credible candidate who — since he has spent most of his adult life in Chavez's Venezuela — doesn't carry the baggage of the corrupt governments that came before Hugo Chavez," Isacson said. "And the opposition no doubt benefits from a bout of 'Chavez fatigue' in Venezuela: even many voters who think fondly of Hugo Chavez may feel that 14 years is enough, and his cancer has made many start to envision a post-Chavez Venezuela for the first time in a while."

Chavez's approval ratings have topped 50 percent in recent polls, and his struggle with cancer doesn't appear to have hurt his popularity. The 57-year-old president says he's cancer-free after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy last year, and has been energetic in his hours-long television appearances, apparently trying to show he can still keep up with a younger challenger.

Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said he thinks one significant hurdle facing Capriles is to try to "challenge Chavez's claim to being the president of the non-privileged as well as the defender of Venezuelan nationalism."

"Capriles needs to come up with a set of concrete measures that are innovative and reach out to the popular classes," Ellner said.

Capriles is a moderate who describes his views as center-left.

He said he expects personal attacks from Chavez to increase, and suggested that he, too, might become more confrontational in response. So far, Capriles has largely avoided direct or personal barbs.

"If they want me to get into the ring, I'll get into the ring," Capriles said.

Capriles said he would welcome a televised debate. Chavez didn't immediately respond to that challenge.

The leftist president said before the primary that all of his rivals represent the interests of the rich and the U.S. government.

Chavez has already kicked his campaign machinery into gear. He has increased spending by launching new social programs that offer cash benefits for the poor and invested heavily in new railways, public housing and cable car systems in Venezuela's hillside slums. As the election nears, he will inaugurate other big-ticket projects that grab attention, including the planned launch of Venezuela's second Chinese-made satellite shortly before the October vote.

Capriles might not be able to compete with Chavez's spending nor his ability to take over the airwaves of all TV and radio stations when he deems appropriate. But Capriles can count on ample campaign funding from anti-Chavez donors, as well as high visibility in opposition-aligned media including the television channel Globovision, private radio stations and newspapers.

Chavez has warned voters that if they don't re-elect him, his social programs called "missions" would vanish. That threat, though disputed by Capriles, could have an influence on some in the run-up to the vote.

Many working-class Venezuelans say they still believe in Chavez and his socialist-inspired program, even as some "Chavistas" openly complain of inefficiency and corruption within his government.

"There are good things and bad things because nobody's perfect, but ... he's helped poor people a lot," said Heidi Lopez, a 33-year-old who raves about the discounted food at government-run markets and plans to vote for Chavez again.

Some of Capriles' supporters say they think he has a good chance of winning over Venezuelans who otherwise might lean pro-Chavez because he has taken a largely non-confrontational approach while promising solutions to problems including 26-percent inflation and one of the highest murder rates in Latin America.

Diego Prada, a 23-year-old marketing manager, said Capriles' inclusive approach resonates among many.

"People are tired of so much confrontation," Prada said.

Thousands of Capriles' supporters celebrated the victory on Sunday night as fireworks exploded overhead. His four defeated rivals promptly united behind Capriles, appearing on stage with him, and pledged to back his campaign.

"In union there's strength!" Capriles shouted to the crowd.

____

Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.

- AP
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