Governor elected as challenger to Chavez

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The 13-year reign of Hugo Chavez as President of Venezuela faces a tangible threat after the country's first opposition primary elections gave a landslide victory to Henrique Capriles, a youthful state Governor who vowed to campaign on a centre-left platform of unity and reform.

"We came here to unite our nation," Mr Capriles declared in a victory speech this weekend. "It isn't the time of lefts or rights. It's the time of all Venezuelans.

"Confrontation and fear are going to be part of that past. Hope can deal with any obstacle they put in our way. Today is a day of hope."

For now, Mr Capriles, the 38-year-old Governor of Miranda State, is behind in the polls as Mr Chavez, recently recovered from a bout with cancer, still holds large segments of his country's population, particularly the poor, in his charismatic sway. But the general election will be held in October, giving Mr Capriles ample time to close the gap.

He is sure to get an early polling boost with victory in the primary contest. He took the nomination with about 62 per cent of the vote, easily outpolling his closest rivals, all of whom have pledged to rally behind him.

His campaign will underscore numerous problems besetting Venezuela – including 26 per cent inflation and the highest murder rate of Latin America.

But unseating Mr Chavez will remain a daunting challenge. The President controls most of the broadcast media and has already started the election-year rituals of turning on the state-subsidy taps to buy the support of voters. He is already warning that his state-support programmes, for instance, on healthcare and housing, which he calls "missions", could vanish if Mr Capriles were to replace him.