Venezuela's Capriles wins primary, seeks to beat Chavez

CARACAS Mon Feb 13, 2012 1:14am EST

1 of 4. Opposition presidential candidate and Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles smiles as he arrives to cast his vote at a polling station in Caracas February 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles easily won a primary election on Sunday to become the unity candidate against President Hugo Chavez, vowing to end 13 years of socialist rule that he said has left the OPEC nation in crisis.

Capriles' candidacy had a firm start as unexpectedly high participation of nearly 3 million people in the primary vote signaled the opposition can mobilize supporters ahead of the October 7 presidential election.

The 39-year-old, center-left state governor's bid was further bolstered by a show of unity among other candidates from the opposition, which for years suffered from internal disputes that ultimately benefited Chavez.

Yet with Chavez riding high in polls, still popular among the poor and spending massively on welfare projects, Capriles will need to go beyond the vague promises and feel-good factor of his primary campaign if he is to unseat the president.

"This is about the unity of all Venezuelans that want progress," Capriles told thousands of cheering supporters gathered outside his campaign headquarters on Sunday night.

"We have a country in crisis and a government dedicated only to partisan politics."

His strong showing, winning 62 percent of the primary vote, will likely lift Venezuelan bonds, which react well to any news suggesting a change from Chavez's state-centered economic model.

"This result is still market positive as the opposition showed mobilization capacity and empowered the candidate," wrote Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos.

Venezuelan bonds, among the most highly traded emerging market securities, rose following Chavez's cancer diagnosis last year but slipped again as the former soldier staged what appeared to be quick recovery.

NEW FACE

Part of a new guard of young opposition leaders, Capriles has cast himself as a fresh face in a country dominated by Chavez's militant leftism and constant confrontation.

The grandson of Polish fugitives from Nazi persecution, Capriles says he admires Brazil's "modern left" economic model, which has helped pull tens of millions of people out of poverty through a mix of state spending and respect for private enterprise.

He has promised to address the day-to-day concerns of Venezuelans such as high crime, unemployment and constantly rising prices, and spend less time on ideological crusades.

"This is what we were hoping for, a man like Capriles who has the power and the responsibility to govern this country, because Venezuela needs to change," said Leila Sutil, 58, a community organizer.

Capriles says he will maintain the best of Chavez's welfare policies, while only gradually dismantling controversial measures that include price and currency controls plus nationalizations of everything from farms to oil service companies.

He has indicated he will steer Venezuela's international alliances away from Chavez's faraway, ideologically motivated friendships with Iran, Belarus, Syria and other anti-U.S. governments.

It will be a hard sell, however, to convince voters in Venezuela's rural backwaters and urban slums won over by Chavez's potent combination of fierce nationalism, abundant charisma and huge welfare programs.

State media immediately began describing Capriles as a "right-wing" candidate, with one prominent late-night commentator questioning the opposition's figure of 2.9 million participants.

Heavy on generalizations and in a hoarse voice, Capriles' acceptance speech showed his public style is still far behind the smoothly loquacious Chavez, who recently spoke for a record-breaking 9 1/2-hour in a speech to Congress.

"The guy may have won the primaries, but he's so lacking in charisma, it's not going to be easy for him ... " sniped deputy foreign minister Temir Porras via Twitter.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)

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