Chavez foes manage to put aside differences and field unified slate for Venezuela's elections

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Foes of President Hugo Chavez have largely put their differences aside and come up with a unified lineup of candidates, hoping to win control of a congress that has done the socialist leader's bidding for years.

Pro-democracy activists, jailed government opponents, journalists, businessmen and union leaders are among the diverse cast of opposition candidates who hope to increase their influence in the Sept. 26 voting for 165 seats in the National Assembly.

The legislature has been dominated by Chavez supporters since opposition parties boycotted the last congressional elections in 2005, alleging irregularities in the run-up to the ballot.

This time a coalition of anti-Chavez groups reached agreements on 143 candidates to represent the opposition and then held primaries last weekend to pick the remaining 22 slots in their election slate.

It's still possible some government foes not included on the coalition's list could run independently, potentially splitting the opposition vote in several districts. But analysts don't expect many Chavez opponents to break ranks because they would run the risk of being ostracized by like-minded allies.

Chavez has recently seen his popularity slip amid a recession, 26 percent inflation and widespread crime. But polls indicate he remains the country's most popular politician, and opponents say he is a formidable campaigner with a large party operation, resources and state media outlets.

Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University, said the opposition's chances have improved because they appear to be more united than ever before.

But he said the opposition's cash-strapped parties have limited funds for campaigning while candidates backed by Chavez have "much more financial capacity than all of the opposition put together."

Candidates chosen by party leaders include six Chavez opponents who are imprisoned on criminal charges and one who was forced to flee Venezuela after prosecutors accused him of corruption. All seven argue the charges against them are politically motivated, and some see September's vote as their only chance for freedom — though there are also risks.

Evelyn Trejo, wife of former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, who fled to Peru after prosecutors accused him of pocketing public funds last year, said her husband could be taking a serious risk if he wins an assembly seat and returns home.

"Risks must be taken in order to get to where we have to go," Trejo said in a telephone interview from the western state of Zulia, which is an opposition stronghold where her husband served two consecutive terms as governor before fleeing the country.

If victorious, Rosales and the imprisoned candidates could be granted "parliamentary immunity" from prosecution for as long as they hold office. Still, some government critics suspect Chavez holds enough sway over the judiciary to prevent that from happening.

Among the jailed candidates are former Caracas police chief Henry Vivas, deputy chief Lazaro Forero and city public safety director Ivan Simonovis — all of whom were sentenced last year to prison terms of up to 30 years for the killings of demonstrators during protests that spurred a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez.

Government foes have applauded their candidacies, arguing the former officers were unjustly imprisoned. Chavez, who insists they were fairly convicted, has lambasted opposition leaders for accepting the men as candidates.

Other candidates labeled "political prisoners" by Chavez foes include Jose Sanchez, who served as Rosales' top security official and is a suspect in a killing of a military intelligence official; retired army Capt. Otto Gebauer, who faces charges related to the 2002 coup; and Biaggio Pillieri, the former mayor of a small town facing corruption charges.

Aspirants include political newcomers alongside others who belong to traditional parties that governed Venezuela before Chavez took office in 1999.

"Venezuela needs new generations to consider public service," said Maria Corina Machado, a 42-year-old independent who was elected in the primaries after she stepped down as director of an elections watchdog organization, Sumate.