Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans flooded downtown Caracas on Sunday to support opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the biggest rally to date of his campaign to unseat cancer-stricken socialist President Hugo Chávez.
The athletic 39-year-old walked and jogged 10 km (6.2 miles) in the company of supporters to register his candidacy with electoral authorities, burnishing his image of physical fitness in contrast to the convalescing Chávez.
Capriles hopes to replace Chávez’s state-driven socialism with a Brazil-style balance between free enterprise and social programs, and promises an end to the sectarian polarization of Chávez’s 13-year rule.
“On October 7th we will decide not between two men but between two different ways of life,” Capriles intoned from a stage set up before a plaza jam-packed with sympathizers before entering the election’s council.
“Today I’m the candidate because the people have decided, but on October 7th I’ll be the next president of all Venezuelans,” said Capriles, saying one million people had turned out.
During his speech he looked up to address a group of people in a nearby government office tower that has been used to house Venezuelans who lost homes in floods – a problem that plagued Chávez for months and spurred a major home-building campaign.
“You’re going to get out of there and move into a home, God bless you and your family,” he shouted.
The event marked a shift toward high-profile rallies to galvanize supporters after a months-long house-to-house tour of the OPEC nation in which he sought to win over new sympathizers ahead of the Oct. 7 vote.
Marchers on Sunday swarmed the main avenues of Caracas, waving the flag of the opposition coalition and chanting slogans alongside trucks blasting Capriles’ campaign pop jingle.
Some women sported T-shirts with the slogan “Future First Lady,” a nod to the good looks of the bachelor candidate, who has received many online marriage proposals during his campaign.
“We are all proud of this candidate, he is a young man who has filled us with vitality and energy,” said Maria Luisa Botero, 47, a secretary who marched while pushing her 87-year-old mother in a wheelchair. “Even my mom wanted to come out.”
Should he win, Capriles would be Venezuela’s youngest president.
The registration is largely a formality, since opposition sympathizers already chose Capriles as their candidate in opposition primaries in February.