By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition coalition on Wednesday fixed an election for next February to choose its candidate to challenge President Hugo Chavez in a presidential vote at the end of 2012.
Polls show Venezuelans evenly split between the socialist leader's fans and opponents, setting up an intriguing and potentially volatile race for next year's election in the South American OPEC member of 27 million people.
Knowing unity is its only chance to beat Chavez -- who has been in power and won a dozen national votes since 1999 -- the Democratic Unity opposition alliance said it would hold primaries to select a single candidate on February 12.
"We are going to elect not only a candidate but the next president of all Venezuelans," Ramon Aveledo, the coalition's executive secretary, told local TV station Globovision.
Younger opposition figures had argued for an earlier date to allow their presidential aspirant more time to develop national recognition given that Chavez remains by far the most popular and best-known individual politician in Venezuela.
But others in more traditional opposition circles argued a long campaign could stretch their finances -- whereas Chavez has a huge advantage given the government's oil revenues -- and give the president more opportunity to attack the candidate.
At a rally on Wednesday, Chavez said he was spoiling for the election fight and mocked the opposition's recent debate over when and how primaries should be held.
"We don't need primaries or secondaries because it's well known that I have assumed the responsibility of being the candidate again," he said, to cheers from a crowd.
"I've said to them 'elect your candidate, because we're going to sweep him away!'"
Polls show the leading candidate to win the opposition's presidential ticket is Henrique Capriles, the energetic governor of Venezuela's most populous state Miranda.
Other aspirants include the 2006 opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, a former Caracas district mayor Leopoldo Lopez, a hard-line veteran Chavez opponent Antonio Ledezma, the governor of oil-rich Zulia state Pablo Perez, and an "old guard" party leader Henry Ramos Allup.
Despite Chavez's lower approval ratings and Venezuelans' discontent with crime and economic problems, whoever wins in February still faces a formidable job to unseat a man who has survived a coup, oil strike, massive street protests and a string of election challenges.
(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Vicki Allen)