Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has dominated his country’s political landscape since taking office 13 years ago.

"Simply by having this primary election ... the opposition of Venezuela has done far more than they have been able to do in the past .... When it comes to their strength, I think that is a different question."

- George Ciccariello-Maher, an expert in Latin American social movements

But, the president, who recently recovered from colon cancer, is now facing a re-election battle - and this time he is up against a growing and determined opposition.

Until now Chavez has easily beaten a divided opposition, although his rivals did make big gains in parliamentary elections last year.

But now the opposition say they are uniting to maximise their chances in October's presidential election. And, in an historic first, they held a primary on Sunday to pick their candidate to challenge Chavez.

Around three million people voted and the winner was Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 39-year-old state governor who has been targetting Chavez's solid support base, particularly the poor.

The primary may have been a first step in leaving behind the bitter divisions that have previously dogged the Venezuelan opposition, but is it enough and can they really defeat the self-declared anti-imperialist and vocal critic of neoliberalism?

"Chavez has the upper hand absolutely. He has a lot of resources. He is a very charismatic leader. So it is going to be extremely difficult for the opposition, but not impossible, to win the presidential elections."

- Viviana Giacaman from Freedom House

According to polls, Chavez is still very popular and would win an election if it were to be held today. He also has full control of the state-run media and he can use it as much and for as long as he likes for free. In addition, Chavez is backed by a well-financed and well-oiled political machine.

But after so long in power, he also faces disadvantages. Some Venezuelans have grown disillusioned. The country has the highest inflation rate in the Western hemisphere and many argue that crime is out of control.

For the opposition, the biggest challenge may be to convince the people that they do not represent a return to the past, when governments cared little for the poor, who are the majority in this oil-rich country.

So, what have been Chavez's successes and failures? And what will be the dominant theme of the elections?

Joining Inside Story Americas to discuss this are: George Ciccariello-Maher, an expert in Latin American social movements from Drexel University; Viviana Giacaman, the regional director of Latin America for Freedom House, which advocates for democracy and human rights; and Hal Weitzman, a former Andean correspondent for the Financial Times.

"I know there is a perception outside Venezuela that this is an issue between the middle class and the poorest classes but it is not so. We had very successful voting participation [in Sunday's primary] in all sectors of Venezuela .... It was a widespread participation that made this victory a national victory ....

Now we [the opposition] hold the flags of participation, we hold the flags of inclusion, we hold the flags of democracy while the government is criticising participation, while the government is stepping aside from an inclusive and participatory process ...."

Leopoldo Lopez, the national coordinator for the Capriles campaign 

Hugo Chavez timeline:

  • A former army paratrooper, Hugo Chavez led a failed coup attempt in 1992
  • February 1999 - Chavez was sworn in as Venezuelan president and pledged to push for a constitutional assembly, which voters backed less than three months later
  • July 2000 - Chavez was re-elected under a new constitution, beginning a six-year term
  • April 2002 - A coup to topple him failed. Military officers took him into custody only to release him a few days later. Their actions followed strikes by business leaders
  • December 2006 - Chavez was re-elected for a further six years with two-thirds of the vote
  • February 2009 - Chavez won a referendum which ended term limits for elected officials, clearing the way for him to seek re-election
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Source: Al Jazeera