The crowds are bigger, his speeches slicker, and Venezuela’s young opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, is on a roll in a final, frenzied push to end President Hugo Chavez’s socialist rule. With just one week left before the Opec nation’s presidential election, the 40-year-old state governor is whipping up crowds like never before, creeping up in the polls and becoming increasingly aggressive in his attacks on Chavez’s policies.
“We’ve never had a candidate like him,” gushes shopkeeper Andrea Gomez, 42, screaming at Capriles like a teenage fan at a pop concert, as the passing politician blows kisses from an open-top cavalcade on the Caribbean coast north of Caracas.
Capriles has made big inroads among the working class where Chavez has his power-base, but still faces suspicions that he is too much of a rich kid and will end Chavez’s popular welfare programmes.
The 58-year-old incumbent remains a formidable campaigner and has a strong connection with many Venezuelans, especially the poor. Yet while a majority of big pollsters still put Chavez in front, two – Consultores 21 and Varianzas – have Capriles just ahead.
Opposition activists insist the poll numbers are distorted by a “fear factor” – government employees wary of reprisals if they show support for Capriles, for instance – and therefore underestimate their man’s real popularity. Either way, Capriles seems certain to have the best tilt at Chavez that anyone has managed during his 14-year rule.
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