* State governor seeks end to Chavez's 13-year rule
* Opposition unity will be crucial to campaign success
* Chavez still leads polls ahead of presidential vote
By Marianna Parraga and Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS, Feb 12 Youthful state governor
Henrique Capriles won Venezuela's opposition primary on Sunday,
setting up a potentially close battle with socialist President
Hugo Chavez in an October election.
The ballot marked a step forward in the historically
fractured opposition's attempts to oust Chavez, whose 13-year
rule has galvanized the poor but divided the South American OPEC
nation and spooked foreign investors.
Capriles, the 39-year-old center-left governor of Miranda
state, won 62 percent of the vote in Venezuela's first-ever
opposition primary vote, easily beating nearest rival Pablo
Perez on 30 percent.
"We've come to build a future for all Venezuelans," Capriles
said at a victory rally, donning a baseball cap in Venezuelan
colors and vowing to start his presidential campaign right away.
"As of tomorrow, these legs are going to walk through all
the villages, all the slums, all the communities of Venezuela."
The four other opposition candidates joined him on the
stage, to a backdrop of fireworks, in a symbolic display of
unity meant to turn the page on past bickering inside opposition
The support of Perez, the governor of the most populous
Zulia state who was backed in the primary by two large
traditional parties, will help provide Capriles a formidable
get-out-the vote machine.
Perhaps as important as Capriles' victory was the opposition
turnout of 2.9 million voters in the poll, considerably above
what the coalition had targeted in a sign that Chavez's
adversaries have improved their ability to mobilize supporters.
The grandson of Polish fugitives from Nazi persecution,
Capriles hopes his energetic style and decent record in Miranda
can help him counter Chavez's vast government spending and
popularity among Venezuela's poorest.
Capriles hails Brazil's market-friendly but socially
conscious policy model as his inspiration and has said he would
take a "no shocks" approach to dismantling Chavez's statist
economic policies, such as currency controls.
CHAVEZ STILL STRONG
Chavez supporters were quick to dismiss the results, noting
that the total turnout in Sunday's ballot was only a fraction of
the country's 18 million registered voters.
They say the opposition represents an old, discredited
political elite who paid scant attention to the poor majority in
the past and will never beat the president. Polls show that
Chavez, a former soldier who is looking robust again after
recent cancer treatment, has an edge as the campaign heats up.
Information Minister Andres Izarra said via Twitter that the
2.9 million voters on Sunday were less than the number the
opposition had to request a 2004 recall referendum that Chavez
ultimately beat out. "Now let's hope they recognize Chavez's
victory on Oct. 7."
Chavez, 57, has won almost all of a dozen or so national
votes in Venezuela since taking power in 1999, and has survived
national strikes, massive street protests and even a brief
military coup that toppled him for 36 hours.
Reading a newspaper in a sunny square deep in the
pro-government January 23 area on hills above Chavez's
presidential palace, 66-year-old retired pharmacy assistant
Ramon Paraera said no one would beat the president.
"Chavez is helping the people. He's with the people, not the
bourgeoisie," he said, sitting below a mural of revolutionary
heroes including Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
At stake is control of the biggest crude reserves in the
world and state oil company PDVSA, which despite declining
output still sends more than three quarters of a million barrels
a day to the United States and about half a million to China.
Chavez has nationalized almost all Venezuela's oil industry
over the years, kicking out U.S. majors and putting PDVSA in
charge of multibillion dollar projects. The opposition deny
government allegations they plan to privatize the company.
Never out of the spotlight for long, Chavez attended a rally
on Sunday to celebrate the 198th anniversary of the "Batalla de
La Victoria" ("Battle of Victory") against Spanish forces.
"We cannot let Venezuela lose its independence," said
Chavez, who often mocks his political foes as U.S. stooges.
The former soldier pledges "more socialism" for Venezuela if
he wins re-election, while the opposition is stressing its
commitment to addressing Venezuelans' non-ideological concerns -
crime, unemployment and social services.
"In our assessment, assuming his health allows him to
campaign, President Chavez is still the favorite to win even if
facing a likely competitive challenge from Capriles," Goldman
Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos said in an a research note.
However daunting the task ahead, Capriles supporters were
enjoying their big night. Thousands chanted "Unity! Unity!",
waved Venezuelan flags and danced outside his campaign
"This is a historic triumph, a triumph of 3 million votes,"
said university student Moises Carvallo, 19. "This will motivate
the undecided voters and give us victory on October 7."