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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 October 2006, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
New life for Venezuela opposition?
As campaigning intensifies ahead of Venezuela's presidential election, the BBC's Greg Morsbach asks whether the country's often divided opposition is ready to face President Hugo Chavez.

A middle-aged man dressed in jeans, trainers and a blue shirt jogs up a steep and narrow alleyway in an urban slum in Venezuela.

Manuel Rosales greets supporters
Mr Rosales has been on a whirlwind tour of Venezuela

He is followed by 10 bodyguards, 40 journalists, 60 campaign helpers and 100 or so police escorts.

The residents look on in bewilderment as the sweaty visitor reaches out to them, patting a child on the head, kissing an elderly woman on the forehead and entering a shack made out of red breeze blocks.

Five minutes later, he has already moved on to the next alleyway.

Another day and another campaign stop for Manuel Rosales - the main Social Democrat opposition challenger who wants to unseat President Hugo Chavez in the 3 December presidential elections.

He was picked in August by Venezuela's mainstream opposition leaders as their unity candidate to take on President Chavez at the polls.

There is curiosity in some places to find out more about Mr Rosales.

In others he is greeted with jeers and hostility from hard line "Chavistas" - the name given to president Chavez's followers.

Ambitious schemes

For the past month, Mr Rosales and his allies have clocked up thousands of kilometres with his whirlwind tour of Venezuela.

He has deliberately targeted the poorest areas, ranging from urban slums to rural villages in the interior.

Supporters of opposition candidate Manuel Rosales
Supporters of Mr Rosales believe their man can take on Mr Chavez

While Mr Chavez has been busy with a string of foreign trips, Manuel Rosales, who is also the governor of Venezuela's oil rich Zulia State, has in some ways been stealing the show with his high-profile campaign tour.

He has certainly tried to steal the limelight with a number of ambitious schemes that would distribute around 20% of the country's oil profits to low-income families.

"One such programme is called 'Mi Negra'. It's a black plastic debit card which we propose to hand out to some two million poor families," Mr Rosales's campaign chief, Jose Vicente Carrasquero, told the BBC.

"Each month we intend to transfer up to $450 to the card depending on the current oil price, so the families can go out and buy food or save the money to set up a small business."

Governor Rosales has also offered to introduce a gun amnesty to solve the problem of soaring gun crime figures in Venezuela, if elected President.

He is offering a reward of around $2,400 for every gun handed in to the authorities.

But Alberto Garrido, a leading political commentator, says the idea is "unrealistic".

"People will just go out and buy lots more guns with the reward. It smacks of populism.

"Rosales is buying votes from the poor by offering something in return like cash. He is behaving like a demagogue."

Lack-lustre ratings

But what about the other 19 opposition candidates who are so far standing against Mr Chavez in December's polls?

It would be a big embarrassment internationally if everybody from the opposition pulled out, arguing that the elections weren't free and fair
Alberto Garrido
Political commentator

Apart from Benjamin Rausseo, a self-made millionaire and stand-up comedian, most of the names on the list are relatively unknown to the electorate.

Mr Rausseo started his election campaign with lots of noise and showbiz razzmatazz two months ago but seems to have run out of steam.

His policies are broadly speaking pro-business, pro-Washington and less in favour of the nanny state.

His good-luck charm is a donkey but he may need more than that to drag his lacklustre ratings out of the doldrums.

The Count of Guacharo, as he is known on stage, may decide to withdraw from the race in late November when opinion polls are likely to show Manuel Rosales as the strongest opposition candidate.

Opposition suspicions

Besides "the Count" and Mr Rosales, there are still 17 names left in the opposition hat. Among them are a handful of people who appear to be sympathetic to Mr Chavez's socialist revolution.

'Mi Negra' credit card
Mr Rosales's promises include a debit card for the poor

Venezuela Da Silva, for example, a middle-class lawyer, defines herself as pro-Chavez and says she is offering a slightly softer approach to President Chavez's programme.

There is a suspicion - so far without hard evidence - among Venezuela's traditional opposition parties that Mr Chavez's campaign managers have encouraged pro-Chavez "opposition" candidates to run against the president.

"This would ensure that Chavez would always have plenty of opponents to run against on 3 December, in case his main rival, Rosales, decides to quit the race beforehand," says Alberto Garrido.

"It would be a big embarrassment internationally if everybody from the opposition pulled out, arguing that the elections weren't free and fair."

'Simple choice'

But President Chavez and his supporters have repeatedly pointed the finger at Venezuelan opposition groups for receiving millions of dollars in funding from the US government via its main overseas aid agency.

Chavez supporters
Hugo Chavez's supporters are hostile to many in the opposition

Indeed the Venezuelan leftist leader refuses to acknowledge or name individual opposition politicians during his campaign speeches.

Instead Mr Chavez says Venezuela's voters have a simple choice:

"Either you vote for Hugo Chavez who embodies the revolution or you vote for President Bush and his lackeys who stand for a return to the dark old days of neo-liberalism."

Is this argument persuading the electorate to reject the likes of Manual Rosales?

With another two months to go before the big day, opinion polls still give Mr Chavez a clear lead over Mr Rosales.

But according to independent pollsters like New York-based Douglas Schoen, President Chavez is likely to see his advantage over Mr Rosales reduced over the next few weeks.

"It's only natural that any incumbent, in this case President Chavez, sees his ratings slip or stay the same at this stage of an election campaign," Mr Schoen says.

He adds: "The voters know President Chavez all too well. They've had seven years of him. Rosales however is a breath of fresh air and that's why his ratings will probably increase."




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