Is Chavez's Opposition For Real?

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No one doubts that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a brilliant politician. But the controversial leader who loves to pick fights with the U.S. has also been a fortunate one — not just because he's presiding over the highest crude prices his oil-producing nation has ever enjoyed, but also because his opposition has proven to be one of the most incompetent and fractured in the hemisphere.

Led to a large degree by leftovers from the corrupt political class that once had a lock on power, they tried and failed to wrest power from Chavez with a coup d'etat in 2002 and a nationwide oil strike that paralyzed the country later that year. They only seemed to deepen their hole when they lost a 2004 referendum to oust Chavez and then boycotted parliamentary elections last year — a blunder that allowed Chavez allies to take 100% control of Venezuela's National Assembly and strengthened his seeming omnipotence. Since then, divisive infighting has been the opposition's norm.

But this week Chavez's adversaries have finally started to show some signs of a unified front. With the prospect of a divisive round of primaries on the horizon, the majority of opposition candidates for December's presidential election withdrew on Wednesday in order to back Manuel Rosales, governor of Zulia state and the leading opposition candidate in the polls. After months of intense negotiations, opposition leaders seem to understand that throwing their weight behind one man is their only prospect — however slim — at unseating the heavily-favored Chavez. Front runners Julio Borges of the Justice First party and Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor and former guerilla who dropped out last week, showed their support for Rosales when he declared himself the chosen candidate on Wednesday. "We're all showing that we want to build something bigger than us," Borges said. "Governor Manuel Rosales, count on all of us."

With main contenders Borges and Petkoff now behind him, Rosales is beginning to reveal his platform. He has promised to counter the surging housing deficit and to fight the out-of-control crime and police corruption that has fueled public anger. In an effort to move beyond his core backers in the middle class, he also promised to distribute Venezuela's oil wealth more equally than the current government, proposing a direct payoff of petro-dollars to families. That pledge, however, may sound similar to the widespread oil-funded social development programs Chavez already has in place that are popular with low-income Venezuelans, who make up more than half of the country's population.

The governor of oil-rich Zulia still does not have the whole opposition behind him. The opposition party which led Venezuela's transition to democracy almost 50 years ago, Democratic Action (known by the Spanish acronym AD), has ironically called on voters to abstain in the elections. And the late candidacy launched by comedian Benjamin Rausseo has also thrown a surprise challenger into the ring. Rausseo's rise from humble beginnings to one of the country's most beloved entertainers could resonate with low-income Venezuelans, even though many people are still trying to figure out if the off-the-wall comedian who has a comic theme park on the tourist island of Margarita is serious about running.

Better known by his stage name "The Count of Guacharo," Rausseo smiled widely and held up a peace sign for journalists who laughed heavily at his sometimes-vulgar jokes at a recent press conference. The candidate stressed that his bid was for real, but then added a joke: "It's serious. I've already spent $230." He shrugged off speculative criticism that his candidacy could be backed by the government to try to make the opposition a laughing matter. Although he did not withdraw with the others on Wednesday, Rausseo says he will give up if he trails another candidate in the race.

Some sectors of the population are antsy to see opposition representation in a government that is almost completely run by officials loyal to Chavez. The opposition also widely complains that irregularities in the voter registry could help the government tamper with election results. Still, with 55 percent of Venezuelans expecting to vote for Chavez, many pro and anti-Chavez Venezuelans alike take it for granted that he will win another six years in power. But then again, this is a country that over the last four years has seen a failed coup d'etat, two-month oil strikes and a referendum on the president's rule. In other words, in the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, anything can happen.