CARACAS, Venezuela – Political opponents of Hugo Chavez called off their primary election and joined forces Wednesday behind a popular state governor as their top choice to challenge the Venezuelan president in December.
The pullout of nine candidates prompted the cancellation of Sunday's primary vote and cleared the way for Zulia state Gov. Manuel Rosales to face Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and is seeking a third four-year term.
"I will be the president of all Venezuelans regardless of their differences," Rosales told a cheering crowd, referring to complaints that Chavez has polarized society, stoking divisions between his poor supporters and wealthier opponents.
Rosales, 54, accused Chavez of overspending on a military buildup and pledged that if elected on Dec. 3, he would to use Venezuela's oil wealth to help the poor and improve education and health care.
"We will exchange warplanes for hospitals, tanks for schools and universities, missiles for preschools," he said.
The opposition has called Chavez's spending on Russian warplanes and other weapons a waste. Chavez, who regularly clashes with the United States, has said Venezuela must be prepared to defend itself against the U.S. and has built close ties with countries Iran and North Korea.
His opponents argue that despite the leftist Chavez's heavy spending on social programs for the poor, the efforts are plagued with mismanagement.
Rosales spoke after Julio Borges, a conservative lawyer who leads the party Justice First, announced that he and other leading opposition candidates had decided to back Rosales.
"For all who love this country, today is the day to put aside personal ambitions and think about the unity of Venezuela," Borges said. "Mr. Manuel Rosales, count on all of us. I offer my support, the support of my party and that of my generation to you."
On Friday, another leading opposition candidate, newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff, also dropped out in favor of a single candidate.
Rosales said nine rival candidates had officially decided to back him. He made the announcement a day after the elections council ruled that he must temporarily step down from his post as governor to continue in the race, but could return to that position if he loses.
Sumate, a U.S.-backed non-governmental organization that had planned to administer Sunday's opposition primary, confirmed that the vote was off.
"Unity was achieved by another method," Sumate leader Alejandro Plaz told The Associated Press.
But not all opposition candidates have fallen in behind Rosales. Benjamin Rausseo, a highly popular standup comedian, announced his candidacy on Sunday, and while opinion polls have yet to measure Rausseo's support, analysts say his colorful candidacy could make him a serious contender. Rausseo has said he could step aside later if another candidate turns out to have the best shot at defeating Chavez.
Rosales began his political career in the 1970s as a councilman in his hometown of Santa Barbara del Zulia in the cattle-ranching plains of western Venezuela.
Rosales, who leads his own small party, A New Time, is one of the few anti-Chavez politicians to head a state government. A former mayor of Maracaibo, he was elected governor of the western state in both 2000 and 2004, even as allies of Chavez swept state governorships and National Assembly seats.
He remains widely popular in Zulia, which has the second-largest concentration of voters after Caracas, the capital.
Recent polls had shown Rosales leading Borges. However both lag far behind Chavez, who according to recent surveys has the support of a clear majority of Venezuelans.