CARACAS -- Henrique Capriles Radonski has taken on President Hugo Chávez from congress, the governor’s mansion and from jail. Now, he’s hoping to continue that fight in the national arena.
On Sunday, Venezuelans head to the ballot box to choose a single opposition candidate to battle Chávez for the presidency in October.
Most polls give Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, a 15 to 20 point lead over his nearest rival in the five-way race.
Wiry and intense, Capriles, 39, has made a name for himself as a hands-on leader with a workaholic streak. During recent flooding, he was photographed in chest-high water helping constituents. At campaign rallies, he has the politician’s knack of making just enough eye contact to satisfy supplicants as he plows through massive crowds.
It’s that energy that he says will allow him to beat the 57-year-old Chávez, who has stepped up his TV appearances as he recovers from an undisclosed form of cancer.
“That horse is tired and this horse is full of energy,” Capriles told reporters recently. “We are going to travel this country from point to point...You win the race on the ground not on television.”
Capriles’ political sprint has helped give him a comfortable lead over his nearest rival, Pablo Pérez, the governor of Zulia state. Further behind in the race are legislator María Corina Machado, Venezuela’s former permanent representative to the United Nations Diego Arria and Pablo Medina, a one-time Chávez ally turned foe.
After years of squabbling that played into Chávez’s hand, the coalition of opposition parties is hoping a unified front will give them the momentum necessary to capture the presidency. All the contenders in Sunday’s race have pledged to back the winner.
But the cooperation hasn’t started yet. On the campaign trail, Capriles has pledged to be tough on crime, loosen state controls and create a business-friendly environment. But he has also promised to improve social programs, or the “missions” that have been one of the backbones of Chávez’s popularity.
“The sense that the quality of these programs has deteriorated is unanimous,” said Capriles, who advocates auditing the initiatives — which include free food, housing and subsidies to the elderly, among others — to see if they’re effective.
In Miranda, 60 percent of the free medical clinics that Chávez began rolling out in 2003 have been shuttered, he said. “What do I offer? Let’s get these programs working again. And why stop there? Let’s take them even further.”
In polarized Venezuela, giving Chávez any credit is anathema to the opposition. Capriles’ willingness to do so has exposed him to attacks by his rivals. But his message has resonated among those weary of the political divide.
In this primary race, the anti-Chávez hard-liners have been polling near the bottom, said John Magdaleno, the director of Politi, a political consulting firm.
“If people still think that confronting Chávez head on works, here’s the evidence that it’s a failed strategy,” he said. And even though social issues, such as healthcare, education and housing, are Chávez mainstays, the opposition is wise to address them.
“If your competitor is strong in some areas and those areas are vital for the majority, you have to try to beat that monopoly,” he said. “You have to steal his flags.”
Despite his age, Capriles is already an old political hand. At 25 he won a seat in congress and became the youngest person to hold the presidency of the chamber of deputies. He went on to win two terms as mayor of the Baruta municipality — part of greater Caracas.
It was as mayor that he first caught national attention — but for the wrong reasons. In the wake of a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez, an aggressive hoard descended on the Cuban embassy to try to drum out government officials suspected of taking refuge there. Capriles was among the crowd. Less than two days later, Chávez was restored to power and the government accused Capriles of abetting the aggressors and not calling on the Baruta police to restrain the mob.
Rather than flee the country, as some politicians did, Capriles faced the accusations from jail. The charges were eventually dropped, but his popularity soared, Magdaleno said.
“Jail was a big boost for him,” he said. “The fact that he stayed here to face the charges was noteworthy and people appreciated him for it.”
Capriles ran for governor of Miranda, which includes part of Greater Caracas, in 2008 and won with 53 percent of the vote. The fact that he beat Chávez’s hand-picked candidate and longtime ally Diosdado Cabello made the victory more impressive.
Chávez has discounted the opposition’s chances. On the mend from the cancer treatment that left him bald and bloated, Chávez used a recent meeting of regional leaders to skewer the opposition.
“I’m sure they’re very sad that my sickness didn’t prosper like they hoped it would,” he said. He claimed his polls showed he had a 30-point lead on any rival. “We only have eight months to go but anyone who knows about these things says it’s almost impossible to change that tendency.”
Even an ailing Chávez is a formidable contender. With more than a decade in power, he still has popularity ratings of about 50 percent and a devout legion of followers. The government’s television, newspaper and radio empire gives him almost daily access to millions of households. (His speech to the national assembly, which ran more than 9 hours, was recently broadcast.)
In addition, his government also has been ramping up public spending as new price controls push down the costs on household goods. Not a week goes by without government workers handing out subsidized microwaves, or inaugurating new projects.
That has won Chávez a loyal following that’s deeply suspicious of people like Capriles.
“Those opposition people will say anything to get elected,” said Octavio Machado, 67, a sidewalk salesman in one of the poorer areas of Miranda state. “But there’s not a single one of them who came from the street or the mountain. They’re all rich kids. Chávez is the only one who has ever done anything for the poor.”
Capriles has accused Chávez’s PSUV party of using the state-run oil company as its personal piggybank.
“This is going to be an unfair competition, but we’ve never had fair competitions and we’ve always won,” Capriles said. “We have one thing that the government doesn’t. We are on the side of the future where as this government is on the side of the present and the past.”
Capriles prides himself on never having lost an election. On Sunday, the voters will decide if he keeps his winning streak.