Opposition election chief Teresa Albanes announced the preliminary results, saying that Capriles won about 62 percent of the vote, beating Zulia state Gov. Pablo Perez by more than 30 percentage points.
Chavez’s opponents lined up to vote in many areas, surpassing most expectations with a turnout of about 2.9 million ballots cast out of Venezuela’s 18 million registered voters.
Capriles had been the front-runner in preelection polls among five contenders, presenting a younger, energetic alternative to the Chavez, 57, who has recently battled cancer.
“He’s going to be the candidate who can get us out of this giant hole we’re stuck in,” said Carmen Gloria Padilla, 66, a telephone company employee who voted for him.
Hundreds of supporters celebrated the win outside Capriles’s campaign headquarters, holding small flags emblazoned with the slogan “There is a way.” Fireworks exploded in the sky above the crowd.
Some of Capriles’s supporters said they think he has a good chance of winning over Venezuelans who otherwise might lean pro-Chavez because he has taken a largely nonconfrontational approach while promising solutions to problems including 26 percent inflation and one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.
Diego Prada, 23, a marketing manager, said he thinks Capriles’s inclusive approach offers a much better chance against Chavez than other competitors who have taken a hard line against the president.
“People are tired of so much confrontation,” Prada said. As for Capriles, he said, “he has a message of unity.”
The once-divided opposition has gained popularity in recent years, and the race could end up being the toughest reelection bid of Chavez’s career.
The leftist president won reelection with 63 percent of the vote in 2006, but his popularity has declined since, in part because of crime and economic trouble.