Chavez foes jostle ahead of Venezuela vote, move left

CARACAS (Reuters) – Criss-crossing Venezuela armed with promises of change, opposition leaders are jostling for position to run against President Hugo Chavez, convinced they can end his long rule with a mix of centre-left policies.

The radical former soldier has been in power since 1999 and remains popular among the poor. But foes believe he is finally vulnerable and that the December 2012 election will end his brand of socialism in South America’s biggest oil exporter.

Single-minded in preparing for the election, they have no plans to whip up the kind of street protests and military unrest now rocking the Middle East.

A few years ago, opponents of Chavez tried to unseat him in a coup and a crippling shutdown of the oil industry, but he survived and came back stronger. A boycott of parliamentary elections in 2005 left the opposition in the wilderness, although they have since regained some credibility.

“The dynamic is different here. In Venezuela, despite all the difficulties and all the obstacles, there is an electoral window in 2012 and we have to get ready,” said Leopoldo Lopez, the former mayor of a wealthy district of Caracas and one of several opposition figures touted as a possible candidate.

Chavez’s popularity ratings have dipped under 50 percent because of a sluggish economy, but his rivals know they have to unite behind one candidate to beat the fiery socialist.

At a small rally on a recent chilly night in Caracas, it looked like campaigning was already underway.

“Our next president Leopoldo Lopez!” supporters of the 39-year-old politician chanted as he chatted with reporters before turning to the crowd. “We have 22 months to prepare for change,” he responded with a grin.

The 20 or so parties in the Democratic Unity alliance are debating whether to hold primaries before or after Christmas to choose a single candidate and forge a basic platform.

That is easier said than done. They have long been riven by divisions and are leery of abuses by Chavez’s government, which has in the past limited opposition advances with rule changes and legal harassment.

Lopez is one of half a dozen men who lead a cluttered group of possible candidates to take on Chavez, but he may not even be allowed to run as he is barred from standing for public office by a corruption case widely seen as politically motivated. He hopes to overturn the ruling. United since last year, opposition leaders will need to stick together even as they battle for the candidacy, and they also have to convince Venezuelans they are electable.

Not all the possible candidates are centre-left. But, aware that Chavez’s social welfare policies have won him swing voters time and time again, many from the ideologically diverse alliance say they cannot run on a conservative ticket.

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