Venezuelan opposition parties are holding their first primary on Sunday to pick a unity candidate to battle ailing President Hugo Chávez, in power for more than a decade, in an October vote.
Five candidates are running in the opposition contest with the favorite Henrique Capriles, 39, the energetic governor of Miranda state, polls show.
The 57-year-old Chávez, who last year underwent chemotherapy in Caracas and Havana and now claims to be cancer-free, is seeking a third six-year term in the October 7 vote.
A fiery critic of the United States, Chávez is the main political and economic ally of Cuba, the only one-party communist regime in the Americas.
Capriles, telegenic and energetic, has been in politics since 25. His campaign got a boost last month when Leopoldo López, 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.
Capriles is also known for having confronted Chávez back in 1999, when the governor was a lawmaker.
His main opposition rival is Pablo Pérez Álvarez, 42, of the Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era) party. Pérez governs Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous and wealthiest state.
Both Pérez and Capriles say they want to end the country’s deep political polarization and have pledged to fight poverty. They have campaigned with a conciliatory message and have avoided directly criticizing Chávez.
The other candidates in the race are independent legislator María Corina Machado, labor leader Pablo Medina, and former ambassador Diego Arria. Unlike the governors, these three have chosen to aggressively challenge Chávez.
Capriles and Pérez have emerged in recent months “as favorites precisely because they sought to depolarize the country and refrained from confronting Chávez,” said historian Margarita López Maya.
“It’s apparently an electoral strategy that works,” she added.
Pérez said he does not plan to roll back all of Chávez’s policies.
“We don’t intend to come to power and say: We are ending everything and bringing something else,” he said. “What we view as good, we’ll keep, what needs to be improved we will improve and with what we disagree, we will see.”
The US-backed coalition has called on Venezuelans to head to 7,600 polling stations set up around the country to cast ballots, and have vouched for the confidentiality of their votes.
In January the opposition parties unveiled a unity platform focusing on free-market economics and emphasizing public safety.
This would include an end to price controls, in place since 2003; adoption of a competitive currency exchange rate; reassessing Chávez’s creation of a socialist state; and returning autonomy to the Central Bank.
A key issue will be voter turnout.
The primary is the first of its kind and it remains to be seen what turnout can be rallied. Balloting is also for potential opposition governors and mayors.
Observers will be on hand from countries including Spain, Colombia, Peru, the United States, Australia and Japan.