(Updates with voter comment in 13th paragraph.)
Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuelans vote today in the country’s first-ever presidential primary to choose a single candidate to face President Hugo Chavez in an October election.
Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski leads opposition candidates, according to polls. He was backed by 61 percent of those surveyed, compared with 16 percent for Pablo Perez, the governor of Zulia, and 5 percent for lawmaker Maria Corina Machado, according to a survey by Caracas-based polling company Datanalisis.
Chavez opponents say the primary will demonstrate unity after years of bickering and political blunders as they seek to break the self-declared socialist revolutionary’s 13-year rule in the Oct. 7 vote. The opposition has vowed to maintain economic stability by dismantling only gradually Chavez’s policies and promising to maintain some of the welfare benefits of Chavez’s “21st century socialism.”
“With participation, you build a homeland and with participation you strengthen our democracy,” Capriles said today from his voting place in Caracas on the Globovision television network. “Venezuelans for the first time in our history have the opportunity to elect our candidate. That’s history. We’re going to surpass our expectations on voter participation.”
Observers will be looking at voter turnout and the winner’s margin of victory as signs of how strong a challenge the opposition can mount. The leading candidates, Capriles and Perez, have both said participation of 10 percent of the 18 million Venezuelans registered to vote would give the opposition momentum as it starts an eight-month campaign to return to power.
“Today, the opposition has a different face than the old opposition,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, executive secretary of the Democratic Unity Table, as the opposition alliance is known. “Before, the only thing that united us was our opposition to Chavez,” he said in an interview Feb. 6.
Chavez spoke today in Aragua state at a military parade commemorating Youth Day and a historic battle in the country’s war of independence, without commenting on the primary vote.
Capriles, 39, whose Jewish grandfather arrived in Venezuela from Poland after fleeing Nazi persecution and founded the local unit of East Hanover, New Jersey-based Nabisco Inc., has set up more than 70 free health clinics in poor neighborhoods of Miranda state and provided subsidized food to low-income families. He has waged a campaign based on creating employment through forging alliances between the public and private sectors.
Perez, 42, a lawyer, has claimed he’s best qualified to win the votes of the poor in a face-off against Chavez and vowed to re-establish presidential term limits after Chavez won a referendum to abolish them in 2009.
All three leading candidates are younger than 45, which the opposition says may make it harder for the 57-year-old Chavez to portray them as the old guard who want to return South America’s largest oil producer to the cronyism and corruption of the past.
“In Venezuela, you can breathe the air of change,” Perez said today from his voting place in Zulia state on the Globovision television network. “This is our opportunity to ratify the popular change that we want in Venezuela so we can have an assured future.”
The walls surrounding the Manuel Palacios Fajardo Technical School in 23 de Enero, a sprawling Caracas slum long considered a pro-Chavez bastion, are filled with socialist murals depicting Karl Marx, the Paris Commune and Chavez. This is where Chavez votes in general elections.
Edward Gonzalez, 40, voted for Capriles looking for a candidate that can challenge Chavez later this year, while also seeking a break with the opposition’s old guard.
“He’s not with the old parties that are the reason why Chavez is in power today, they’re to blame,” said Gonzalez, who works in insurance, after voting at the school. “Chavez has had 13 years to improve things and he hasn’t done it. He still has a lot of people and it will be an all-out fight to beat him.”
In the last election in 2006, anti-Chavez leaders rejected a proposal to hold a primary, instead selecting behind closed doors Manuel Rosales, then-governor of Zulia state, as their candidate. A supporter of the government that took power after Chavez was briefly toppled in 2002, Rosales ended up losing to Chavez by 63 percent to 37 percent.
Chavez, who says he’s cured of cancer after doctors removed a tumor from his pelvic area in June, says only he can guarantee stability in Venezuela and that any opposition candidate would eliminate the social programs that have been key to his popularity among the country’s poor.
The president’s approval rating has risen since he announced he had cancer last year and as the economy has picked up after contracting in 2009 and 2010. Record revenue for state- owned Petroleos de Venezuela SA of $128 billion in 2011, after Venezuelan crude prices rose 40 percent to an average of $101.06 a barrel from a year earlier, allowed for a surge in public spending that helped gross domestic product expand 4 percent.
Chavez is leading voter preferences with 47.3 percent of support, compared with 44.9 percent for the opposition candidate, according to a December poll by Consultores 21 that was published by Barclays Capital in a note to clients. The report didn’t specify dates or a margin of error for the survey.
Showing that he is in physical condition necessary to mount a full-fledged campaign, Chavez made a nine-and-a-half-hour speech, his longest ever, in the National Assembly on Jan. 13.
--Editors: David Marino, Sylvia Wier
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