Opponents of President Hugo Chavez voted in their first-ever presidential primary on Sunday, choosing a single challenger they hope will have what it takes to finally defeat Venezuela's leader after 13 years in office.
Henrique Capriles, the front-runner among five contenders according to pre-election polls, predicted a high turnout.
"We're going to surpass all expectations of participation," Capriles said after voting in Caracas. "Today is a day for Venezuelans' future."
Opposition supporters seemed less interested in the proposals put forth by the contenders than their chances of defeating Chavez in the October presidential election.
The outcome will set the stage for what many are billing as the most anticipated presidential contest since Chavez's first triumph in 1998, and Venezuelans on both sides of the nation's political divide are eager to see who will emerge as the challenger.
"I think this time there will be a change," said Edgar Arvais, a 57-year-old engineer who emerged from a polling station at a school after casting his ballot for Zulia state Gov. Pablo Perez. He said crime and a weak economy are top concerns, and the opposition this time is "very strong, very determined."
Carmen Gloria Padilla, a 66-year-old telephone company employee, said she was voting for Capriles, who is the governor of Miranda state and has attracted a large following as a charismatic, youthful alternative.
"He's going to be the candidate who can get us out of this giant hole we're stuck in," Padilla said.
Polling stations remained open an hour later than the scheduled closing time due to what opposition leaders said was high turnout. Teresa Albanes, president of the opposition coalition's electoral commission, said after 5 p.m. (2130 GMT) that most polling centers were closed but that some would stay open where lines remained until all had voted.
For the opposition, the primary was a test of its ability to mobilize voters, and also a vital step in its long-sought efforts to unseat Chavez.
"I don't care who wins," snapped Gloria Muchacho, a 45-year-old housewife who said she hates when Chavez interrupts her soap operas with hours-long televised speeches that all channels are required to broadcast. "I just want them to get him out. He must go."
Chavez, however, proved himself a tireless campaigner as he easily sailed to election victories in 1998, 2000 and 2006. As the election season heats up, Chavez has said he's itching for a fight.
Chavez spent election day presiding over a parade in honor of the "Day of Revolutionary Youth" in Aragua state, wearing the presidential sash and applauding as supporters marched past in formation. He spoke briefly but did not mention the opposition vote.
During his marathon televised addresses, the leftist president has insisted it doesn't matter who emerges as the opposition's candidate because he's confident none of his rivals are capable of beating him. He repeatedly taunts would-be challengers, portraying them as pawns of Venezuela's wealthy elite and Washington and warning they would try to dismantle his socialist-inspired programs for the poor.
Still, lines formed on Sunday at polling stations in some poor neighborhoods of Caracas that have traditionally been Chavez strongholds.
"I decided to come to vote to express my complete unhappiness. In these 12 years, the country has gone downhill," said Ruben Rodriguez, a 59-year-old construction worker who was waiting in line to vote in eastern Caracas.
Others stayed away, saying they aren't interested in what the opposition politicians have to offer.
"They aren't interested in helping the poor, they only want to get rid of Chavez," said Miriam Colmenares, a 57-year-old street vendor, of the opposition candidates. She said she has helped Chavez's ruling party organize voters for the Oct. 7 presidential vote and was handing out leaflets this past week to pedestrians in Catia's palm tree-dotted plaza. "Chavez cares about us, and we are going to defend him."
But Colmenares, like many "Chavistas," confesses she's fearful "El Comandante" could be in danger this year.
Capriles has narrowed the gap behind Chavez to single digits in recent polls and is leading the opposition pack with about 40 percent support. Perez was trailing Capriles by about 10 percentage points in pre-election polls, with three other candidates garnering modest support.
Voters in the primary elections were also picking opposition candidates for other offices, including 17 state governor posts.
Several voters said they're optimistic the primary winner will have a strong shot at beating Chavez because the opposition is more united than in the past.
Isabel Gomez, a 59-year-old lawyer, said she thinks a young and energetic candidate such as Capriles will appeal to voters more than an older president who has struggled with cancer. Chavez says he is cancer-free after undergoing chemotherapy, but doubts linger among some Venezuelans.
"I think people want a healthy president," Gomez said. As for the elections this year, she said, "it's the last chance we have .... to achieve an opposition win and have democracy in this country."
Presidential contender Maria Corina Machado, a congresswoman who has taken a hard line against Chavez, said she had heard from some government employees that they were afraid of possible repercussions if they vote.
"Don't be afraid," Machado said on television as she arrived to cast her ballot. "The government isn't going to know how you voted, but your children will and you will know for the rest of your life."
Some of Capriles' supporters said they think he has a good chance of winning over voters who otherwise might lean pro-Chavez because he has taken a largely non-confrontational approach.
"Confrontation and fear are going to be part of that past," Capriles said after voting. "Hope can deal with any obstacle they put in our way. Today is a day of hope."
Despite lingering differences, the opposition candidates, along with many of their supporters, will likely throw their support behind whoever the winner is, driven by the conviction that Chavez's challenger will need an active, unified opposition movement backing him, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
"The opposition is more unified than it has been in many years," Shifter said. "To have a good chance of defeating Chavez, the losers in the primary election will not only have to unite behind a single candidate, but will have to do so enthusiastically and energetically."