President Hugo Chavez’s allies are bombarding Venezuela’s newly anointed opposition leader with attacks ranging from the legitimacy of the primary vote to his sexuality and Jewish roots.
Auguring a rough campaign ahead of the presidential election in October, the torrent of accusations against Henrique Capriles began just minutes after his landslide win at the Democratic Unity coalition’s primary on Sunday.
With Chavez himself uncharacteristically quiet, senior officials and state media have led the attack, denouncing Capriles - a 39-year-old state governor who wants to be Venezuela’s youngest president - as a “bourgeois” and “fascist.”
“Now we know who is the candidate of imperialism, of capitalism and the right wing,” said Congress leader Diosdado Cabello, a former military comrade and longtime staunch supporter of the socialist president. “The anti-patriotic candidate has a face. He won’t have an easy election campaign.”
Capriles - the grandson of Jews who survived the World War Two Holocaust in Poland - defines himself as a center-left “progressive” who admires Brazil’s “modern left” model of free-market economics with a strong social face.
The attacks against him illustrate the election battle that lies ahead in the polarized South American OPEC member nation, where Chavez has strong support among the poor and projects opponents as representatives of a discredited, super-rich elite.
The most furious accusations have come from state media commentator Mario Silva, who often targets Chavez’s foes on his late-night show “The Razorblade.”
Silva insulted opposition leaders and then read out a purported police document reporting Capriles was caught in a car having sex with another man in 2000.
Capriles denied the allegation and said the document was falsified. Police have not commented.
Another state radio commentator, Adal Hernandez, wrote a vitriolic profile of Capriles, highlighting his Jewish family background and titled: “The Enemy is Zionism.” Capriles, a practicing Catholic, has not responded to the profile.
One cartoon, retweeted on Wednesday by a senior Chavez aide, showed Capriles in pink shorts with a Swastika on his arm, facing a much larger image of Chavez. He often talks emotionally of his grandparents’ escape from Nazi repression.
Capriles comes from a rich family but pointedly spends more time in a T-shirt in shanty-towns than in his office, and he is seeking to project himself as above the mud-slinging.
“I wasn’t elected to fight with anyone but to solve problems,” said Capriles, who won nearly two-thirds of the 3 million votes cast in Sunday’s primary.
“The only confrontation I want is against violence, unemployment, corruption and other problems in Venezuela.”
Much of the official ire against Capriles has focused on Sunday’s primary vote, saying the overall numbers were inflated to give an impression of massive opposition turnout - even though the state electoral authority supervised the poll.
Chavez supporters have also demanded to know the source of Capriles’ campaign financing, implying pro-U.S. interests have been backing him. The Democratic Unity candidate has responded that his books are open for all to see.
Adding to the charged political mood in Venezuela, the Supreme Court blocked the opposition coalition from burning voter registration books from Sunday’s vote - a measure they had promised to counter fears there could be retribution.
The government for years discriminated against Venezuelans whose names were on a list of people who had requested a recall referendum on Chavez’s rule, blocking them from jobs, state loans and in some cases even entrance to government buildings.
Capriles has criticized one-sided coverage by state media, accusing it of routinely ignoring protests about crime and water shortages while extensively reporting “every time a mango falls on a roof” in the state of Miranda where he is governor.
He traveled to the Caribbean island of Margarita on Tuesday to visit a shrine and give thanks for his primary victory.
Capriles says his religious conviction increased during four months in jail in 2004 after a riot outside the Cuban Embassy which he was accused - but later acquitted - of fomenting.
Analysts say the finally united opposition - which in the past has been crippled by in-fighting and failed to dislodge Chavez via mass street protests or a string of votes - has its best chance in 13 years of unseating him in October.
Yet the president still appears to have the edge, thanks to high popularity among the poor, a formidable party machine and an extraordinary pre-election spending spree on welfare projects like allowances for single mothers and pensioners.
Recent polls have shown Chavez would win about 60 percent of votes in October, though analysts caution that could change if Capriles runs a dynamic campaign. He plans to start a tour of Venezuela from next week.
“Capriles is a competitive candidate. He is young and less connected to the country’s discredited pre-Chavez political class and he is the governor of an important state, who enjoys high approval ratings,” the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said in a report.
“We don’t think this will be enough to defeat Chavez, but it points to the fact that the election could be tighter than most anticipate, and that there could be some volatility in terms of expectations in the run up to the election.”
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Brian Ellsworth, Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray