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-year rule but it must first pick a candidate to unite behind.
Here are some facts about the main opposition figures:
The energetic and youthful governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second most populous state, Capriles has emerged as the strongest candidate in the field ahead of internal opposition elections scheduled for Feb. 12, according to all polls.
Borrowing from Chavez’s populism, Capriles, 39, won praise for his handling of last year’s floods, when he waded neck-deep in water to help rescue efforts. He is known for tramping through shantytowns in jeans and T-shirt to talk to locals.
Capriles says he would emulate Brazil’s “modern-left” model of economic and social policies if elected. He has been cautious to avoid any impression of capitalizing on Chavez’s health problems, instead wishing him a speedy recovery in time for a fair fight next year.
Perez is governor of the oil-rich Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous state. He has won the support of his predecessor in Zulia, Manuel Rosales. Rosales founded their A New Time party and was thrashed by Chavez in the 2006 election. He now lives in Peru in exile with corruption cases hanging over him.
Perez launched his candidacy in a flashy event at a Caracas hotel where he appealed for reconciliation between Chavez supporters and opponents. He also appealed to the more than half of Venezuelan homes that are led by women, and said women were vital to putting the country on the path to progress.
He has likened 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 unity in the country.
Machado, an articulate opposition leader who is popular with voters in affluent Caracas districts, has risen in the polls since she announced her candidacy. She is hated by many Chavez supporters, partly because of a photo of her smiling and shaking hands with former U.S. President George W. Bush.
She was elected as the highest vote-getter in the legislative elections last September, but some analysts say the government could be happy she has entered the opposition’s primary race because she is seen as more polarizing than others in the field.
A 40-year-old former mayor with a Hollywood smile, Lopez is a thorn in the side of Chavez and the opposition old guard.
The government used a law to block Lopez from running for Caracas mayor in 2008 because he faced corruption charges which he says were trumped-up. He is still barred from running for office, but hopes to overturn the ruling.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard his case earlier this year and is expected to rule that he should be allowed to take part in elections. The government may, however, simply ignore that. Polls show him running a close second among opposition voters as their favorite to challenge Chavez.
Lopez has founded a political party and network of supporters in poor and middle class areas. He says human rights are at the heart of his political views and that the next president should clean up politics and fight poverty.
A hard-line veteran Chavez opponent who benefited from Lopez’s removal from the ring in 2008, Ledezma beat a close ally of the president to win the Caracas mayorship.
Chavez accepted the upset, but then hobbled the new mayor by slashing his funding. Ledezma, 55, was not allowed to occupy the town hall and Chavez created a new post for a handpicked official with more power than the mayor.
Ledezma protested with a six-day hunger strike. He has since quietly run the remains of the mayorship and made a name for himself overseas as a speaker on the situation in Venezuela. He describes himself as a social democrat, and is seen as further to the right than some of the candidates.
Henry Ramos Allup leads Democratic Action, the larger of two parties that dominated Venezuelan politics for four decades before Chavez. The Social Democrats remains the leading opposition force. Polls say Ramos has little support and he says he has not decided whether to enter the primaries.
Henri Falcon, a state governor and former Chavez ally, is widely respected as a third-way politician combining a center-left social agenda with support for business. But he is little known outside his home state of Lara.
Governors Cesar Perez and Henrique Salas have also been mentioned, along with Salas’ father Henrique Salas Romer and veteran opposition politician Oswaldo Alvarez Paz. (Reporting by Caracas newsroom; Editing by Kieran Murray)