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It’s man versus machine for Venezuela’s opposition

It’s man versus machine for Venezuela’s opposition

The opposition candidates, from left to right: Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, Diego Arria, Maria Corina Machado, Pablo Medina and Pablo Pérez.

This Sunday, Venezuela’s opposition will select its candidate to face President Hugo Chávez in next October’s presidential election. Long seen as a cakewalk for Miranda State governor  Capriles, there are indications the open primary could be tighter than expected.

Miranda, population 3 million, includes large chunks of the Caracas metropolitan area, and is Venezuela’s second most-populous state. Capriles, 39, handily wrested away the governorship in 2008 from one of Chávez’s closest allies. Since then, he has established a good working rapport with local chavista organizations, and his administration is regarded as an efficient, solutions-centered model for how the opposition might govern in a post-Chávez world. His scrupulously non-confrontational message (he refuses to even mention Hugo Chávez by name) has played well to an electorate weary of Chávez’s us-versus-them, conflict-based brand of politics.

Capriles’s strongest rival, Pablo Pérez, is the governor of the most populous state. Zulia, in Venezuela’s far west, is home to almost four million people. Its state capital, Maracaibo, is the country’s second largest city. The opposition has run the state government for the last 12 years, establishing a vast network of local leaders who speak the language of patronage.

Pérez has run a more traditional, typically populist, yet surprisingly unfocused campaign. He entered the race late, and his main message has veered from promising to decentralize government to unifying the opposition in a single party and to getting tough on crime.

Recent polls have put Capriles far ahead of Pérez, with some suggesting that the former leads by a ratio of two to one.

In the first world, you’d call that a done deal. But in Venezuela, nobody’s using the term. Even though Pérez lacks message discipline, he has assembled a fearsome coalition, one that includes his own New Era Party (UNT), as well as the old, pre-Chávez political machine run by Acción Democrática.

The Pérez people know how to get out the vote. In an unprecedented open nationwide primary, there’s no way of predicting how big a role that could play. It could even be a game-changer.

On a recent trip to Maracaibo, I was impressed with the quality of UNT’s organization. Activists all across the state know exactly who their voters are, and are psyched to get them to the voting booth this Sunday, opinion polls be damned. A last-minute endorsement for Capriles by one of their rivals, former mayor Leopoldo López, has been interpreted in the Pérez camp as Caracas’ elite "ganging up" against the Zulia candidate.

Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, the one outright conservative in the race, is running a distant third. But Machado has gained some momentum thanks to a forceful debate against Hugo Chávez during his State of the Union speech. The consensus in Maracaibo is that her gains come at Capriles’s expense, and at Pérez’s benefit.

Yet while Pérez’s UNT party is strong in Zulia, it is weak in the rest of the country. That is where he will have to rely on the old parties to carry the load.

Sunday’s primary will answer an interesting question for Venezuela’s opposition: How big a role do party-machine politics play 13 years into the Chávez era?

If, as the polls suggest, the machine candidate is crushed, it may be the last gasp of the legendary Acción Democrática — the party that governed Venezuela for 30 of the last 53 years — and its storied get-out-the-vote machine. A big win for Capriles would be a victory for message over mobilization.

Regardless of the outcome, Venezuela’s opposition is poised to rally around the victor. Pérez and Capriles are on friendly terms, and both have vowed to support whoever wins. Let’s see if they can make good on their pledge.