Venezuela's Chavez taunts "bourgeois" election foe

Wed Feb 15, 2012 2:49pm EST

* Socialist leader's first reaction to Capriles' primary win

* Accuses opposition candidate of trying to imitate him

By Mario Naranjo

CARACAS, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez vowed on Wednesday to thrash newly chosen opposition leader Henrique Capriles in an October election and mocked his foes for copying him to woo voters.

It was the socialist leader's first reaction to Capriles' landslide victory in a weekend opposition primary that set up a potentially competitive presidential election in the South American OPEC nation dominated by Chavez for the last 13 years.

Speaking at a parliament session in southern Bolivar state, Chavez first congratulated the Democratic Union coalition for a primary that drew a higher-than-expected 3 million turnout.

Then he turned on them, criticizing the burning of election records - which the coalition did to counter fears of reprisals should the lists fall into state hands - and accusing Capriles of representing the interests of Venezuela's wealthy elite.

"The bourgeoisie have their candidate - the candidate of the anti-fatherland, of capitalism, of the Yankees. We are going to thrash that bourgeoisie," Chavez said in the familiar class rhetoric that has characterized his rule.

Raised by his grandmother in a rural hut, Chavez, 57, projects himself as the protector of the poor and his anti-American rhetoric has made him one of the world's best-known and most controversial leaders.

Though from a wealthy family, Capriles, the 39-year-old state governor of Miranda province, describes himself as a center-left "progressive" and spends more time in shanty-towns than in his office.

'DRESS UP LIKE CHAVEZ'

Capriles promises to preserve and improve upon the welfare policies, like free healthcare in the slums, that underpin Chavez's popularity among Venezuela's poor majority.

"Do you want to look like, Chavez, bourgeoisie? It doesn't suit you," Chavez taunted in his speech.

"You should take advantage of carnival and dress up like Chavez for a few days," he said, referring to Venezuela's upcoming annual carnival holiday.

Capriles' weekend win has launched Venezuela's presidential race in earnest and stoked political tensions in the already deeply-polarized nation. Chavez supporters have been attacking him non-stop, including over his Jewish family roots.

Though opinion polls give the president an edge for October, Capriles is seen as the strongest candidate the opposition has had throughout the Chavez years. About a third of Venezuelans are undecided, and competition for their votes is expected to be intense.

Trying to build on momentum from his weekend win, Capriles campaigned in oil-rich Zulia state on Wednesday. Accompanying him in a show of opposition unity was Pablo Perez, governor of Zulia, who lost to Capriles in the primary.

"There's a hurricane passing through and the government wants to build a wall to stop it," Capriles told reporters.

The grandson of Jews who survived the World War Two Holocaust in Poland, Capriles is an admirer of Brazil's "modern left" model of free-market economics with a strong social conscience.

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California state worker Albert Jagow (L) goes over his retirement options with Calpers Retirement Program Specialist JeanAnn Kirkpatrick at the Calpers regional office in Sacramento, California October 21, 2009. Calpers, the largest U.S. public pension fund, manages retirement benefits for more than 1.6 million people, with assets comparable in value to the entire GDP of Israel. The Calpers investment portfolio had a historic drop in value, going from a peak of $250 billion in the fall of 2007 to $167 billion in March 2009, a loss of about a third during that period. It is now around $200 billion. REUTERS/Max Whittaker   (UNITED STATES) - RTXPWOZ

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