Venezuela's opposition politician Leopoldo López ducked out of the presidential race on Tuesday, throwing his support behind front-runner Henrique Capriles Radonski.
The announcement gives a significant boost to Capriles, who has a commanding lead in the polls ahead of the Feb. 12 opposition primary, which will choose a single challenger to face President Hugo Chávez in the Oct. 7 presidential election.
"You will be the next president," Lopez said at a news conference with Capriles. The two embraced and raised their arms before a cheering crowd. "In me, he will have a great ally," Lopez added.
López, a former Caracas district mayor, has been trailing in recent polls. He said that with his departure, "unity is strengthened" within the opposition.
Capriles, an athletic 39-year-old, has captured support among Venezuelans by presenting himself as a capable manager and pledging to solve problems such as rampant crime, unemployment and 27-percent inflation.
Capriles has tended to avoid direct verbal confrontations with Chávez and has described his politics as center-left. He likens his approach to that of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who promoted pro-business policies while funding expansive social programs that have made him popular among the poor.
Capriles is currently the governor of Miranda state, which is the country's second-most populous state and includes parts of Caracas as well as largely impoverished towns in the surrounding hills. He served as mayor of the capital's mostly middle-class district of Baruta before he was elected governor in 2008, defeating a close ally of Chávez. He is also a former congressman.
"We need all your good ideas here," Capriles told Lopez during the news conference. "We both have the same dream."
Both leaders repeated Capriles' campaign slogan, "There is a way."
Chávez has been in office for 13 years and is seeking another six-year term in the October election. His approval rating recently has been above 50 percent.
Lopez had gone ahead with his presidential bid despite a Supreme Court ruling in October that had upheld a ban on him holding office yet also said he could be a candidate.
Lopez is on a list of hundreds of politicians who have been barred from holding office in the past decade due to corruption investigations, but he insists he is innocent and notes he was never sentenced in a court.
In its decision, the Supreme Court upheld a decision by the country's top anti-corruption official disqualifying Lopez from holding office until 2014. The Supreme Court also dismissed as "unfeasible" a decision by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights that had sided with López and said his political rights had been violated.
"López was running far behind in the polls, and the Supreme Court's defiance of the decision by the Inter-American Court left a big cloud of uncertainty over López's future, even if he were to come out ahead," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "Capriles has been the front-runner for some time, so the endorsement will continue to bolster his campaign."
Lopez's departure leaves a field of five candidates ahead of the Feb. 12 primary. Trailing Capriles in the polls have been Pablo Perez, the governor of western Zulia state, and congresswoman María Corina Machado. Also running are Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, and politician Pablo Medina.
Capriles urged Venezuelans to turn out in large numbers for the primary vote. As for López's support, Capriles said: "This is an alliance with a view fixed on Oct. 7."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.