CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan politician Leopoldo Lopez said on Tuesday he will maintain his campaign to win the opposition leadership and challenge leftist President Hugo Chavez despite a court ruling upholding his ban from office.
Flanked by his wife and about 200 cheering supporters, Lopez declared he would not shrink from the Supreme Court’s ruling that he can run for office but not serve if he wins due to past, unproven allegations of corruption.
“I can and will be a candidate for the president of Venezuela,” the charismatic 40-year-old said.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against implementing a decision last month by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights that said Lopez’s disqualification from politics over graft charges was unjustified.
“The decision (to elect a president) is not for the IACHR or the Supreme Court, that’s only for the Venezuelan people to determine,” Lopez shouted.
“They’re wrong if they think we are just going to kneel down.”
The baby-faced Lopez — who is running third in polls ahead of a February opposition primary to choose a challenger for the October presidential vote — made his name as mayor of the wealthy Chacao district in Caracas.
He was favored to win the race for mayor of the whole city in 2008, but he and scores of other politicians — mostly the opposition — were blocked by Chavez’s comptroller-general.
Accused of but not tried for corruption, Lopez was barred from seeking public office until 2014.
“The Venezuelan Supreme Court today basically belongs to President Chavez,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Lopez is part of a new wave of young opposition leaders who have wrested initiative away from an old guard opposition whose past in-fighting and associations with big political machines turned off voters and gave Chavez a relatively easy ride.
He will now vie with two young state governors, Henrique Capriles Radonski of Miranda and Pablo Perez of Zulia, for the opposition ticket while also trying to maintain the coalition’s new-found unity seen as essential to hopes of beating Chavez.
“This decision to go forward does not jeopardize the (opposition) unity, it strengthens it ... They cannot break the unity that is being built in Venezuela,” Lopez added.
Should Lopez win the primary and beat the leftist Chavez, the situation would be complicated — political experts are divided on whether that expression of popular will should overrule the court.
Venezuela’s judiciary is, however, packed with Chavez supporters at its high echelons. Human Rights Watch says Chavez and his supporters have “effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary.”
Chavez’s comptroller-general, Adelina Gonzalez, warned that Lopez may be committing fraud if he runs a presidential campaign given the measure against him.
But Lopez was upbeat: “There is no way that once the people express their will, that decision cannot be respected.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Diego Ore and Eyanir Chinea; editing by Cynthia Osterman and Mohammad Zargham