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Venezuela's opposition chooses Chavez's challenger

By Christopher Toothaker

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Feb. 12 2012 5:10 p.m. MST

A nun looks up from a voting booth while marking her ballot at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday Feb. 12, 2012. Citizens head to the polls in Venezuela's first-ever opposition primary Sunday to choose a candidate that will challenge President Hugo Chavez in October.

Fernando Llano, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opponents of President Hugo Chavez voted in their first-ever presidential primary on Sunday, choosing a single challenger they hope will have what it takes to finally defeat Venezuela's leader after 13 years in office.

Henrique Capriles, the front-runner among five contenders according to pre-election polls, predicted a high turnout.

"We're going to surpass all expectations of participation," Capriles said after voting in Caracas. "Today is a day for Venezuelans' future."

Opposition supporters seemed less interested in the proposals put forth by the contenders than their chances of defeating Chavez in the October presidential election.

The outcome will set the stage for what many are billing as the most anticipated presidential contest since Chavez's first triumph in 1998, and Venezuelans on both sides of the nation's political divide are eager to see who will emerge as the challenger.

"I think this time there will be a change," said Edgar Arvais, a 57-year-old engineer who emerged from a polling station at a school after casting his ballot for Zulia state Gov. Pablo Perez. He said crime and a weak economy are top concerns, and the opposition this time is "very strong, very determined."

Carmen Gloria Padilla, a 66-year-old telephone company employee, said she was voting for Capriles, who is the governor of Miranda state and has attracted a large following as a charismatic, youthful alternative.

"He's going to be the candidate who can get us out of this giant hole we're stuck in," Padilla said.

Polling stations remained open an hour later than the scheduled closing time due to what opposition leaders said was high turnout. Teresa Albanes, president of the opposition coalition's electoral commission, said after 5 p.m. (2130 GMT) that most polling centers were closed but that some would stay open where lines remained until all had voted.

For the opposition, the primary was a test of its ability to mobilize voters, and also a vital step in its long-sought efforts to unseat Chavez.

"I don't care who wins," snapped Gloria Muchacho, a 45-year-old housewife who said she hates when Chavez interrupts her soap operas with hours-long televised speeches that all channels are required to broadcast. "I just want them to get him out. He must go."

Chavez, however, proved himself a tireless campaigner as he easily sailed to election victories in 1998, 2000 and 2006. As the election season heats up, Chavez has said he's itching for a fight.

Chavez spent election day presiding over a parade in honor of the "Day of Revolutionary Youth" in Aragua state, wearing the presidential sash and applauding as supporters marched past in formation. He spoke briefly but did not mention the opposition vote.

During his marathon televised addresses, the leftist president has insisted it doesn't matter who emerges as the opposition's candidate because he's confident none of his rivals are capable of beating him. He repeatedly taunts would-be challengers, portraying them as pawns of Venezuela's wealthy elite and Washington and warning they would try to dismantle his socialist-inspired programs for the poor.

Still, lines formed on Sunday at polling stations in some poor neighborhoods of Caracas that have traditionally been Chavez strongholds.

"I decided to come to vote to express my complete unhappiness. In these 12 years, the country has gone downhill," said Ruben Rodriguez, a 59-year-old construction worker who was waiting in line to vote in eastern Caracas.

Others stayed away, saying they aren't interested in what the opposition politicians have to offer.

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