* Opposition coalition to hold primary vote
* Unity will be crucial for coalition candidate
By Daniel Wallis
CARACAS, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition has a better chance of defeating President Hugo Chavez at next year’s election than at any time during his 12 years in power, but primary elections will test the coalition’s fragile unity.
Three leading opposition figures have thrown their hats into the ring so far and will compete on Feb. 12 to be the Democratic Unity coalition’s candidate to face the socialist leader at a presidential election later in 2012.
The opposition sees it as its best chance yet to unseat Chavez, who has been weakened physically by cancer and politically by widespread concerns over the economy and one of the world’s highest crime rates.
Even as they challenge each other, the candidates need to maintain a message of unity because if the eventual nominee goes up against Chavez without the coalition’s full support, he or she will have much less chance of winning.
“Without unity there is nothing. Within it, there is everything,” Pablo Perez, the governor of Zulia state and the latest candidate to join the race, said at his campaign launch.
The winner of the primary vote will quickly be confronted by the formidable electoral machine of Chavez’s ruling Socialist Party, his domination of state media and his access to billions of dollars in revenue from oil sales.
Formed for last year’s parliamentary polls, where it did well, the coalition is mocked by Chavez supporters as a mix of extreme right, traditional conservative parties and frustrated leftists.
In the past, the opposition was weakened by rivalries and in-fighting, and its candidates were mostly picked behind close doors. It had been largely discredited but the new-found unity, the primary vote and a new crop of leaders all show it may be getting its act together.
The popularity of the charismatic but authoritarian Chavez, who has nationalized much of the OPEC nation’s economy, is currently at just over 50 percent, according to most polls — well down from a peak of about 70 percent a few years ago.
The date of the presidential election has yet to be set, but tensions are already climbing.
Chavez supporters and opposition officials had an angry confrontation in one central town last weekend, lawmakers traded insults in parliament, and Chavez called for the opposition to be investigated over alleged foreign funding.
One influential think-tank has warned political violence threatens to undermine the outcome of the election — whether Chavez wins a new six-year term or not.
Leading the opposition candidates in the opinion polls is the youthful governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles Radonski. Borrowing from Chavez’s populism, he has focused on housing and education initiatives in his state and says he would put in place a “modern left” policy model if elected.
He would seek to win over swing voters by preserving Chavez’s trademark social programs while proceeding gradually with economic reforms. He denounced what he called the aggressions of Chavez supporters.
“They are scared that a process of change is under way. But the more radical they become, the more votes they are going to lose,” he told reporters this week.
Since Capriles announced his intention to run back in June, two other high profile opposition figures from further to the political right have entered the fray: Perez from Zulia state, and Caracas legislator Maria Corina Machado.
Perez announced his candidacy this month in a launch at the capital’s plush Pestana Hotel that had many of the trappings of a U.S. political event, including swirling ticker tape.
He likens his campaign to support for the “Vinotinto”, Venezuela’s long-maligned soccer team that stunned observers in July by making it to the Copa America semi-finals, forging a rare moment of passionate unity in the deeply divided nation.
Machado, a glamorous and articulate opposition leader who is popular with affluent Caracas voters, has risen in the polls since she announced her candidacy. But she is more polarizing than the others, and is a hate figure for many Chavez supporters — partly because of a photo showing her smiling and shaking hands with former U.S. President George W. Bush.
Another potentially strong candidate, Leopoldo Lopez, is currently barred from competing because of corruption allegations that he says are trumped up.
A former mayor of Caracas’ well-heeled eastern district of Chacao, Lopez has appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is expected to give its ruling soon. But the government may simply ignore that if it favors Lopez.
All the candidates have vowed to throw their support behind whoever wins the primary vote, although those promises could be tested by a bruising primary campaign or a disputed result. Polls show Capriles leading handily with around 45 percent support.
Last September’s legislative elections showed Venezuela split down the middle between Chavez supporters and opponents.
Any wrangling over the primary would hurt the opposition by giving the impression that it was focused mostly on internal affairs, and not on voters’ concerns about high inflation, rampant insecurity and a lack of affordable housing.
A big uncertainty is when the actual presidential election will take place, and therefore how long the opposition candidate will have to tour the country to drum up votes.
Presidential elections in Venezuela are traditionally held in December, but there are rumors in political circles that Chavez could decide to call an earlier vote to capitalize on a recent bump in his ratings after he disclosed his cancer and to cut the amount of time his opponent would have to campaign.
It could also let his government intensify its pre-election spending and ensure the vote takes place before any unpopular economic adjustments, like another devaluation, became necessary. But analysts said it was looking unlikely.
“In the absence of a sustained collapse in oil prices, we think earlier elections are less likely, as this would also cut short President Chavez’s time to recuperate and to deliver on visible social initiatives,” Credit Suisse said in a report.
The National Electoral Commission is supposed to announce the date 10 months before voting day. (Editing by Kevin Gray and Kieran Murray)