Opposition Candidate in Venezuela Hopes Slow and Steady Wins the Race

| Feb. 13, 2012 |

Published by PBS NewsHour

Larisa Epatko

The opposition to Venezuela's long-time President Hugo Chavez is getting a face ahead of presidential elections in October after a primary Sunday propelled Henrique Capriles to national attention.

It's not surprising Capriles won—he was the front-runner going into Sunday's primary for opposition candidates—but what was notable was the record turnout for the primary of nearly 3 million voters, said Girish Gupta, GlobalPost's reporter in Caracas.

And that might spell trouble for Chavez in the Oct. 7 elections, Gupta said. "It's something for Chavez to worry about—this many people are voting now, which will build up momentum for October itself," he said.

Gupta said he recently spoke with residents of a poor section of Caracas, known as 23 de Enero and historically home to Chavez supporters, and they sounded ready for a change in government leadership—whether it was someone else leading a Chavez-style left-wing government or another party.

"That really surprised me that even these people, who were drawing pictures of Chavez on the walls, were thinking about some sort of change," whether it was for economic or other reasons, Gupta said. The oil-rich nation has one of the world's highest inflation rates and is grappling with high crime and unemployment.

Capriles, 39, is governor of Venezuela's second-most populous state, Miranda, and calls himself a center-left candidate. He garnered about 60 percent of the vote in Sunday's primary.

What sets him apart from other opposition candidates is that although he is critical of Chavez's government, he hasn't blasted Chavez by name. "Other candidates have done that and failed" to gain traction among voters, Gupta said.

Capriles has run a "very slow and very steady campaign" that promises incremental change rather than a complete overhaul of policies, including the nationalization of industries, Gupta said. He said Capriles told him that if he got into power, he would deal with nationalizations on a case-by-case basis.

"He's not the same as Chavez, but he's also not the antithesis of Chavez," Gupta said. (Read Gupta's profile of Capriles.)

Chavez, who has been in power for 13 years, still has broad support in the country, particularly in non-middle-class areas.

But analysts are saying the high turnout at the primary can be extrapolated among the voting public and could represent a serious challenge to Chavez in the fall.

Chavez's government is downplaying Capriles' win and instead touting the primary as good for democracy, Gupta said. "They're being quite smart. They're not criticizing [Capriles] directly" but saying Chavez has millions of more supporters than the 3 million who voted.

"But there's some worry there, and that's the first time you can seriously say that in the last 13 years," he added.