December 6, 2011 / 3:29 PM / in 6 years

FACTBOX-Chavez opponents vie for 2012 presidential ticket

Dec 6 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition leaders are vying for the right to challenge President Hugo Chavez in a presidential election next year.

Echoing voters’ top concerns, all the candidates have stressed beating crime and cutting unemployment as their priorities in the South American OPEC nation.

Chavez’s cancer treatment has complicated the scenario before the Oct. 7, 2012, presidential poll.

Following are details of the candidates:

HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI

The youthful governor of Venezuela’s second-most populous state narrowly leads polls before the opposition Democratic Unity coalition’s Feb. 12 primary contest.

The charismatic and energetic Capriles, 39, rides a motorbike and heads into shantytowns most days to supervise projects and talk to working class voters.

A basketball player and sports lover, he was the country’s youngest legislator at 26 and defeated a Chavez ally to win the Miranda governorship in 2008.

He was jailed for four months in 2002 on charges of fomenting a protest at the Cuban Embassy, although he says he was mediating. He was acquitted at trial.

If elected, Capriles wants to copy Brazil’s “modern left” model of economic and social policies. On the campaign trail, he has sought to appeal to traditional Chavez supporters, stressed inclusiveness rather than attack the president, and urged Venezuelans to “get on the bus” for change.

“God willing, I will be the youngest president in Venezuela’s history,” he has said.

LEOPOLDO LOPEZ

A Harvard graduate and former mayor with a Hollywood smile, the 40-year-old Lopez is also part of a new wave of young opposition leaders and has a slick public relations machine behind him.

Lopez, who used to be mayor of Caracas’s wealthy Chacao district, is the most-recognized abroad of the opposition candidates because of his long and highly publicized legal fight after being disqualified from politics in 2008.

The regional Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in his favor earlier this year, then Venezuela’s Supreme Court confusingly decreed he could run for president, but was still barred from holding office because of a pending graft probe.

Lopez says Chavez is scared of him and that the charges are false. The saga has won him sympathy from some in opposition circles, but others say there is no point voting for him because he would probably not be able to take the job anyway.

The charismatic Lopez, who is considered center-right, has founded a grass-roots party and network of supporters. Running third in the polls, he promises to shake up the security forces. “There are too many criminals in uniform,” he said.

PABLO PEREZ

Another prominent figure of the opposition’s “youth wing” is Pablo Perez, 42, governor of the oil-rich western state of Zulia. He is running a close second to Capriles in the polls and is trying to project himself as the candidate who has the most in common with Venezuela’s poor majority.

Perez has the important endorsement of two heavyweight parties from the pre-Chavez era: Democratic Action and Copei. While he may benefit from their formidable nationwide political machinery, there could be a backlash among some given the parties’ sullied reputations due to nepotism.

The center-left politician is a lawyer by training and lover of sport, especially basketball.

Recognizing his recent rise in the polls, state TV has been running a campaign against him, including showing murky footage of an incident where he was allegedly drunk and aggressive. Supporters say the images were manipulated.

Perez has governed Zulia and its 4 million people since 2008. The oldest of five brothers and father of three, he comes from Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second city, whose people often boast of their “independence” from the rest of the nation.

“Our only enemies are unemployment, impunity, insecurity, high living costs, corruption and poverty,” he said. “I will be the big father of the Venezuelan family.”

MARIA CORINA MACHADO

Though trailing fourth in the polls, Machado has been widely praised for her performance in two TV debates where she reeled off far more data and details than her rivals.

Recently elected as a legislator and an industrial engineer by training, the 43-year-old mother of three is popular among the well-to-do in Caracas but hated by many Chavez supporters, in part because of a photo showing her warmly greeting former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Machado’s campaign gained more attention last month when several gunshots were fired close to her group during a visit to a Caracas slum that is a pro-Chavez stronghold. She blamed pro-government gangs and said she would return there.

Police were furious at her assertion in the first TV debate that 12,000 small drug trafficking gangs exist in Venezuela.

DIEGO ARRIA

Generally considered an outsider for the opposition presidential ticket, Arria, 73, nevertheless impressed viewers with deeper, different and more historically nuanced answers to most of the questions during the first televised debate.

A former governor, minister and envoy to the United Nations in the early 1990s, Arria appears to be positioning himself as something of an elder statesman for the opposition movement.

Having had his ranch seized by the government in a dispute over title deeds, Arria has a major bone to pick with Chavez and is the most outspoken in his criticism of the president. He has said Chavez should face an international court. (Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Diego Ore and Marianna Parraga; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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