February 13, 2012 / 5:08 PM / 8 years ago

Venezuela's Capriles seeks to unseat Chavez

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition primary winner Henrique Capriles on Monday exuded confidence that he can unseat President Hugo Chavez and end 13 years of socialism that foes say has left the OPEC nation in crisis.

Opposition presidential candidate and Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles speaks to his supporters after knowing the results of the election in Caracas February 12, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Capriles’ campaign got off to a roaring start with an easy victory in the Democratic Unity coalition’s vote on Sunday, where high turnout of nearly 3 million showed the opposition can mobilize supporters ahead of the October 7 presidential election.

The 39-year-old center-left state governor maintained his conciliatory bid for unity in a divided Venezuela, but was more combative in criticizing Chavez’s state-driven economic model.

“The nationalizations are a complete failure, they made expropriations into a political instrument,” said Capriles on Monday during his first news conference after the primary vote.

“This is a government of retrograde leftists,” he said, insisting he seeks a Brazilian-style economy with a mix of social assistance and respect for business.

His campaign got a shot in the arm from a show of unity among losing candidates from the opposition, which for years was torn by internal rivalries that ultimately benefited Chavez.

But 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.

Parliamentary elections in 2010 showed the nation split down the middle, with Chavez’s ruling Socialist Party securing 5.4 million votes against 5.3 million for Democratic Unity.

The president’s approval rating has risen to about 60 percent since then, but polls show about a third of voters undecided. To triumph in October, Capriles must win over most of those so called “ni-nis” (neither Chavistas nor opposition).

Capriles’ strong showing - taking 62 percent of votes cast in the primary - will please investors, who cheer any news suggesting a change from Chavez’s state-centered economic model.

“If the market interprets Capriles’ victory as increasing the opposition’s chances for October due to a perceived higher-than-expected turnout, Venezuelan asset prices are likely to remain well-supported over the next few weeks,” Nomura bank’s Boris Segura wrote.

Venezuela’s dollar-denominated bonds are among the most highly traded emerging market securities, and on Monday they modestly outperformed their peers. The yield spread over comparable U.S. Treasuries narrowed about 20 basis points, compared to 9 basis points of tightening for the overall benchmark JPMorgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Plus.

NEW FACE

At the forefront of a new guard of young opposition figures, Capriles has cast himself as a fresh face for a nation 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 out of poverty through a mix of state spending and respect for private enterprise.

“The government loves talking about revolution. Why don’t we drop the ‘r’ and talk about evolution?” he said on Monday in one of many catchphrases that served him well ahead of the primary.

“I am not a Messiah, I’m a public servant,” he added, seeking to make a contrast with Chavez’s dominant persona.

Capriles has vowed to address 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 responsibility to govern, because Venezuela needs to change,” said Leila Sutil, 58, a community organizer.

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

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

Capriles says he sees no need to cut relations with Cuba, where Chavez has had a particularly close relationship with the communist government, but says future ties must be transparent.

It will be a hard sell, however, to convince voters in rural backwaters and urban slums who have been won over in the past by Chavez’s potent combination of fierce nationalism, abundant charisma and huge welfare spending.

Heavy on generalizations, Capriles’ victory speech showed his public style is still far behind the loquacious Chavez, who recently delivered a record-breaking speech of nearly 10 hours.

State media immediately labeled the governor as “the right wing candidate,” and deputy foreign minister Temir Porras sniped at Capriles via Twitter.

“The guy may have won the primaries, but he’s so lacking in charisma, it’s not going to be easy for him,” Porras said.

Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas and Daniel Bases in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jackie Frank

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