By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - The opposition front-runner ahead of Venezuela's election next year wants President Hugo Chavez fit and healthy again for a fair fight.
Henrique Capriles Radonski also believes the mystery over Chavez's surgery in Cuba could simply be a ploy to heighten speculation about his condition -- thus maximizing sympathy and political gain from a "triumphant" return.
"There's been a great lack of information. And it looks deliberate," Capriles told Reuters of the rumors around Chavez's June 10 operation and prolonged stay in Havana.
"I picture him coming back saying the 'gringo' media had him dead and the Venezuelan opposition wished his death. It's quite the reverse, and I say it as an aspirant to the post."
The 38-year-old state governor is favorite to win the opposition group's presidential ticket in February primaries ahead of the election expected to be held in late 2012.
Chavez, who has become one of the world's best-known and most controversial leaders, wants another six-year term.
"The most important thing of course is for the president to get better, because I want change in Venezuela through the ballot box," Capriles said in an interview late on Sunday.
"I want to face the current president ... well and healthy."
Allies insist the socialist Chavez, 56, is recovering from successful surgery to remove a pelvic abscess, and that he will be back in time to host a regional summit timed for the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence on July 5.
But the usually ubiquitous leader's disappearance from public view, and his limited communications via one phone call to state TV and several messages on Twitter, have fueled speculation he may be seriously ill, possibly with prostate cancer.
The youthful Capriles, who governs Miranda state that includes part of the capital Caracas, says the saga recalls how such matters were handled in the old Soviet Communist bloc.
"Probably Chavez is following the same strategy, so as to return triumphantly before the July 5 parade to make it look as if he is a man who overcomes sickness and the worst situations because he has special gifts," he said.
The president's charisma and connection with Venezuela's poor majority are undeniable. Combined with a liberal injection of oil revenues into social projects, they have underpinned the former soldier's successful stay in power since 1999.
Foes, however, say that belies a dictatorial streak to his rule and that Venezuelans are now wising up to the chaotic and corrupt mismanagement of the OPEC member's vast resources.
Capriles said Venezuelans and the world should be discussing the nation's unacceptable power cuts, prison riots and food shortages, rather than guessing about the status of the president's health.
"In any other country, they would be giving medical reports every day, or every hour if there's change," he said.
Capriles -- who says his politics are inspired by former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's mix of social justice and market-friendly economics -- said Chavez should speak to the nation if he is able to send Tweets.
The governor said he had avoided public comment on the issue until now precisely to avoid fueling false controversy.
"That's exactly what they want," he said.
Borrowing liberally from Chavez's populist playbook and denouncing poverty as Venezuela's number one problem, Capriles has made a name for himself in his state's hardscrabble neighborhoods. He consistently tops polls of opposition aspirants to the presidency.
That has made him an increasing focus of government attacks, including TV ads aimed at discrediting him.
"If it was me who was ill, I assure you they would have got rid of me and named a parallel (state) government or something," he said.
(Editing by Daniel Wallis)