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Venezuela opposition wants Chavez defeated at ballot box

Hugo Chavez greets supporters in Caracas after returning to Venezuela from Cuba.
Hugo Chavez greets supporters in Caracas after returning to Venezuela from Cuba. AP

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's top two opposition candidates say they don't want President Hugo Chavez beaten by an illness but at the ballot box in 2012.

Henrique Capriles Radonski and Leopoldo Lopez said they would not be changing their campaign strategies in the face of Chavez's revelation last week that he has cancer.

"The best thing for Venezuela and best thing for the region would be for Chavez to remain the candidate and lose the election," said Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, who is leading polls of potential opposition figures. "That way we can put behind us the idea that presidents can reelect themselves forever."

Chavez fell ill June 8 while visiting Havana. After weeks of denials by his Cabinet, he revealed that doctors discovered not just a pelvic abscess but also a malignant tumor.

He returned to Venezuela unexpectedly on Monday, but has not provided details about the type or severity of cancer. El Nuevo Herald — citing oncologists — reported that if Chavez has an aggressive form of colon cancer, he could have as little as four to nine months to live or as much as two to three years. The doctors also say it might be prostate cancer.

Even an ailing Chavez is a powerful political force. Despite being in office for 12 years and facing a growing rash of problems, the charismatic leader remains popular. He has approval ratings in excess of 50 percent — and as Monday's impromptu "welcome back" rally showed — has the organizational force to mobilize tens of thousands of supporters.

"More than a political leader or an ideological leader, he is fundamentally a religious leader," said Oscar Schemel, president of the Hnterlaces polling firm. "The poor see him as a good humanitarian who loves them. It doesn't matter how well he governs, they have an emotional bond."

Chavez has not suggested he will step aside for the election, but if he played his cards right, he might be able to transfer part of his power to a political heir, Schemel said.

"After all, people in Argentina are still voting for Peron," Schemel said. "I think we are seeing the construction of the Chavez myth."

And the opposition — rightly or wrongly — is perceived as being weak on plans and long on criticism, Schemel said.

According to Hinterlaces, Capriles is leading the pack with 23 percent approval rating. He's followed by Lopez, the popular former mayor of Chacao, with 14 percent.

Lopez was accused of corruption in 2008 and made ineligible to run for office. He has maintained the move was a political ploy by Chavez to discredit him and has taken his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It's the first time the court has looked at the issue of political rights, Lopez said. And he's confident that in August the body will rule that he is legally entitled to be a candidate.

"The government will be legally obliged to allow me to run," he said. "And we have the goal of consolidating a new majority and presenting a clear alternative ...We don't want (Chavez) defeated by illness but during an electoral process."

Chavez's illness could also divide the opposition, said Saul Cabrera, a political analyst with Consultores 21. During the parliamentary elections in September, the opposition made serious gains by working in coalition. The group has said it will hold primaries on Feb. 5 to choose a single candidate to face Chavez.

But if there is the perception that Chavez is vulnerable, some in the opposition may be tempted to break ranks, Cabrera said."The main thing keeping the coalition together is Chavez," Cabrera said. "The only thing the opposition can really do is to wish him a quick recovery, because that's the human thing to do."

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