IN 13 YEARS of ruling Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has often benefited from his opposition. His first election victory reflected disgust with a complacent and corrupt political order; in his early years, the remnants of that elite played into his hands by boycotting elections while trying to oust him through non-democratic means. In the last presidential election, in 2006, Mr. Chavez faced a respectable but uncharismatic opponent with a history in the old order. He won handily, then forced challenger Manuel Rosales into exile.
Six years later Mr. Chavez’s Venezuela is a wretched mess of inflation, food shortages, rampant drug trafficking and one of the world’s highest murder rates. Yet in the opposition, a promising new political generation has emerged whose leaders look a lot like their counterparts in Brazil, Chile or Mexico. They are populist but pragmatic; internationally schooled yet focused on the problems of the poor; and committed to peaceful change. With another presidential election less than nine months away, they are offering Venezuela a path toward rejoining the democratic world.
More evidence that Mr. Chavez at last faces a serious domestic challenge came Tuesday, when one of the new leaders, 40-year-old Leopoldo Lopez, stepped out of an opposition competition to choose a presidential candidate in favor of 39-year-old Henrique Capriles Radonski — making the latter the overwhelming favorite in a Feb. 12 primary. Mr. Capriles, who upset one of Mr. Chavez’s closest allies in 2008 to become the governor of the key state of Miranda, styles himself as a Venezuelan version of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the immensely popular former Brazilian president who created a new regional model of center-left government. Both Mr. Capriles and Mr. Lopez have worked their way up in Venezuelan politics over the past decade despite constant persecution by Mr. Chavez, while never abandoning the democratic system.
Polls show Mr. Capriles in a dead heat with Mr. Chavez, even though the president has benefited from a wave of public sympathy since revealing seven months ago that he had been treated in Cuba for cancer. Any doubt that the strongman is worried about his political future was erased this month when Mr. Chavez shook up his government by appointing two longtime military allies to key posts — most notably, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva as defense minister. Gen. Rangel has been designated by the U.S. Treasury as an international narcotics kingpin for his well-documented involvement in cocaine trafficking in tandem with Colombia’s FARC terrorist group. In Venezuela, he is notorious for declaring that the military would not tolerate an opposition election victory.
It’s possible that Mr. Capriles will never get his chance to challenge Mr. Chavez at the ballot box. Though the president claims that he is cured of cancer, he has not revealed the details of his illness, and more than one foreign report has said that he suffers from an incurable malignancy. But no one should wish for Mr. Chavez’s untimely death. Instead, the democratic world should be hoping, and campaigning, for a free and fair presidential vote in October — and a democratic victory by Venezuela’s new opposition.