Venezuela candidates mask differences in hope of ousting Hugo Chávez

Venezuela's five contenders for right to run against president present a fraternal front

It is an American presidential nomination campaign like no other: instead of scratching and mauling each other, the rival candidates exchange compliments and smiles as if best friends.

On the stump and in televised debates they each applaud the others' qualifications, commend their integrity and at the end all hug like winning quiz show contestants. The unnatural niceness – the five are professional, ambitious politicians seeking the same prize – stems from the nature of the prize: the right to run against Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela, Latin America's most polarised country.

That election in October promises to be a rough, gloves-off contest. But first, on 12 February, the would-be challengers conclude a deceptively fraternal primary campaign. The apparent cosiness is underpinned by icy calculation. The opposition coalition is so desperate to unseat Chávez it has suspended its chronic backstabbing – squabbles that have crippled it for a decade – to create a slim but real chance of victory.

"It's not an internal struggle. I respect all the other candidates. We all respect each other," said Henrique Capriles, the opposition frontrunner and governor of the state of Miranda, which includes Caracas. His four rivals have echoed that tone, a forced chumminess which has made for somnolent television debates but which US Republicans may envy amid Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney's acrid exchanges.

Election posters adorn lampposts all over the country, young people in bright T-shirts rove traffic jams with flyers and privately-owned media obsesses from morning till night about who will win the primary, billing 12 February as a possible step towards deliverance from Chávez rule. The stakes are high because after 13 eventful years in Miraflores palace the "comandante" is vulnerable. Inflation, violent crime and crumbling infrastructure have eroded faith in his socialist revolution. Last year there were an estimated 4,500 protests over housing, public services and other grievances. Rumours about Chávez's health persist despite his claim to have beaten cancer.

Nevertheless, the incumbent remains favourite. The economy has bounced back from recession and oil revenues are gushing billions into the treasury, enabling the former tank commander to launch new social programmes, and to shore up old ones. Chávez is a charismatic campaigner with a formidable electoral and media machine and control of state institutions and resources.

Near-daily television appearances included a recent nine and a half hour speech to the national assembly, a display of stamina and a sign he was already campaigning. Polls put his popularity just over 50%, below his 2006 heyday but still impressive. "Does this mean that Chávez is going to win? Not necessarily," said Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based pollster. Much depends on the opposition's candidate and campaign, and between now and October there could be surprises, he said. The opposition sabotaged itself during Chávez's first term by staging a coup, an oil strike, a recall referendum and an election boycott, persuading many it was led by out-of-touch oligarchs.

Since 2006 it has moderated its actions, played by democratic rules and clawed back support among the middle class and urban poor. Two strands have emerged during the primaries. Capriles, at 39 the youngest candidate, and Pablo Pérez, another youthful state governor, have staked centrist positions to court voters fed up with the government but still fond of Chávez.

Capriles seldom directly attacks or even names Chávez, instead referring to "the candidate of the PSUV", the president's ruling socialist party. The former mayor and legislator comes from a wealthy family and has a posh accent but projects energy by riding around Caracas on a motorbike, to dodge the gridlock, and regularly visiting hillside slums known as barrios. Capriles was mobbed by crowds last weekend during a walkabout through poor parts of Vargas state.

Asked in a meeting with foreign correspondents to label his politics, the frontrunner said centre-left. He opposes capital punishment, favours same-sex unions and promises to retain the best of Chávez's social missions. He was jailed for several months in 2002 for allegedly leading a siege against the Cuban embassy. He said he was mediating and that the Cubans thanked him at the time.

A sign of what may be in store if Capriles wins the nomination came from the vice-president, Elías Jaua, who said Venezuela deserved a president with a wife and children, highlighting the fact the governor was a bachelor.

The opposition's harder strand is represented by Pablo Medina, a labour leader, Diego Arria, a wealthy former governor and diplomat, and María Corina Machado, a veteran anti-Chávez activist and recent assembly member. They refer to the government as a regime, call the president a despot and, in the case of Arria, want him tried at The Hague for alleged human rights abuses and support of narco-trafficking guerrillas. Polls put the three trailing far behind Capriles and Pérez but at a rally last week Machado fired up supporters by blasting government takeovers of private companies and property. "To expropriate is to steal! What's yours is yours!" The crowd roared back: "Vota duro!" – vote hard.

Machado, 44, is the only female candidate and the only one who dares wear red, a colour Chávez appropriated for his self-styled "red, very red" revolution. She is loathed by Chávez supporters for having backed the 2002 coup against him.

A shot was fired at her entourage during a visit to a pro-Chávez neighbourhood and state television has run edited excerpts of her telephone conversations apparently intercepted by intelligence services. "Chávez was a phenomenon but now the people are tired of him," Machado told the Guardian.

"He gives our oil away to other countries. His social programmes create dependency rather than jobs. In October he's going to get a beating."


Rory Carroll in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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