Chavez foes seek unity through election primaries

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Opponents of President Hugo Chavez held primaries Sunday to pick candidates for congressional elections, a crucial step for Venezuela's opposition as it seeks a unified platform for the September vote.

Venezuelans voted in a third of the country's 24 states, with 87 hopefuls competing for 22 candidacies. The primaries are part of the opposition's effort to field a single candidate for each the 165 National Assembly seats up for grabs, its only chance for mounting a strong challenge to Chavez's allies.

Party leaders have already reached agreements on the other 143 candidates that will represent the opposition as it bids to win control of the assembly, which has been dominated by Chavez supporters since the last congressional vote in 2005.

"Total unity in the majority of voting districts is a necessary requirement, although it's not enough to win," said pollster Luis Vicente Leon of the Caracas-based firm Datanalisis, noting that Chavez foes must motivate their constituents to vote Sept. 26.

More than 10,000 volunteers with ties to opposition groups staffed polling stations equipped with electronic voting machines for Sunday's primarites, which were monitored by the National Electoral Council. The primaries, which cost $700,000 to organize, were financed by political parties and individual Chavez opponents.

"We are going to be more united than ever before," said Richard Blanco, an opposition politician.

Pro-Chavez candidates won all of the seats in the single-house assembly during the last election after major opposition parties boycotted the vote, arguing the country's electronic voting system was susceptible to fraud.

Since then, pro-Chavez lawmakers have eagerly done the socialist leader's bidding, approving laws to strip power from elected officials who sided with the opposition while giving the government the authority to expropriate private property without going through the courts.

Opposition candidates are hoping to present a united front while capitalizing on the growing frustration many Venezuelans have with Chavez, who has failed to curb 26 percent inflation, reduce widespread crime or deliver uninterrupted water and electricity.

The possibility exists that some of the would-be candidates not included on the coalition's list will run independently, potentially splitting the opposition vote in several districts, Leon said. Still, he added, "It will be difficult for them to do much damage."

Chavez has recently seen his popularity slip, but polls show he still remains the country's most popular politician. And the former army lieutenant colonel has always been a tireless and effective campaigner for candidates belonging to his ruling party.

Leon expects a tight race.

"It's an election in which the opposition has better chances than previous votes, primarily because Chavez has lost strength," he said.

Among the 143 opposition hopefuls already chosen as coalition candidates are Stalin Gonzalez, a one-time leader of Venezuela's anti-Chavez student movement; Julio Cesar Reyes, a former Chavez ally from the president's home state of Barinas; and ex-Agriculture Minister Hiram Gaviria.

Former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, who fled the country last year after prosecutors accused him of pocketing public funds, is also a candidate. Rosales denies any wrongdoing, claiming the charges are politically motivated, and he's pledged to return from exile in Peru.

If victorious at the polls, Rosales would be granted "parliamentary immunity" from prosecution for as long as he is in office.