CARACAS, July 29 (Reuters) - A popular mayor hoping to run for a top elected office in Venezuela protested a ban on his candidacy on Tuesday in a case that highlights opposition concerns over weakened democracy under President Hugo Chavez.
Leopoldo Lopez, 37, vows to stand for mayor of Caracas in November in nationwide elections for state and municipal posts, where a fragmented opposition hopes to loosen Chavez’s years-old grip on regional power centers.
But Venezuela’s top anti-corruption official has barred Lopez -- and more than 200 others -- from running on charges the Harvard graduate says authorities have trumped up to stop him winning a post that governs about 3 million people.
“We urge the Supreme Court ... to be strong enough to show its independence and take a coherent, constitutional decision,” Lopez said as he led hundreds of supporters in a rally outside the country’s highest court seeking the ban to be overturned.
A social democrat with a politician’s ability to laugh and chat comfortably with both rich and poor, Lopez has been mayor of the wealthy Caracas municipality of Chacao for 8 years and now wants to govern the whole capital.
The ex-oil executive pledged to register next week to run even if the court fails to overrule the comptroller general, who has blocked opposition and government candidates while he investigates accusations of nepotism and budget mismanagement.
The government says the bans are based on rules used in previous elections. But the opposition say they are symptomatic of how Chavez stymies rivals through courts, election bodies and Congress, which are all dominated by his supporters.
CHAVEZ’S CIVIL WAR
The Caracas post is so important to Chavez that he has said it would lead to “civil war” should the opposition win there and in some governor races. He denies the comptroller general is acting on his orders to thwart popular opponents.
The regional elections have taken on special importance in the oil-exporting nation after the anti-U.S. president lost in a nationwide vote for the first time last year when Venezuelans rejected a bid to expand his powers in a referendum.
Chavez, in office since 1999, had been used to easily winning votes with his majority poor support. He needs to regain momentum this year to launch an effort to rewrite election rules so he can run for the presidency again in 2012.
Lopez was re-elected in 2004 with 80 percent of the vote in his municipality Chacao. The area stands out in a city with some of the world’s worst murder rates because its well-paid police help about 100,000 residents feel relatively safe.
“My biggest campaign advertisement is Chacao. People drive through here and see the police, the clean streets, the green areas, the activities we organize for residents. People see it and want that for the rest of Caracas too,” Lopez said in a recent interview at his municipal headquarters.
His office wall displays his pedigree: U.S. university diplomas, newspaper stories of his grandfather’s opposition to a past dictator and the hardhats he uses when he inspects the rush of construction projects his administration funds.
But the clearest example of his political potential was a large flat TV screen. The state channel had a Congress debate about him with Chavez supporters calling him a “thief” due to charges his mother siphoned state funds to launch his career.
“Seems I worry them,” he said with a smile that makes his fans call him handsome and government critics a “pretty boy.”
Tipped by many political analysts as a potential presidential rival to Chavez, Lopez represents a small emerging class of opponent seeking to heal the polarization that the president’s self-styled socialist revolution has stoked.
But even if he overcomes the ban on his Caracas bid, he would still have to persuade voters in Chavez strongholds he could transfer his Chacao success to the city’s tough slums.
Polls show him in a close race with a veteran government politician, well-known and respected among the capital’s poor.
“But they won’t let the boy run,” said Luis Morales, a 65-year-old taxi driver riding through Chacao. “He’d win and then nothing would stop him. He’d end up president.” (Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Anthony Boadle)
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