By Frank Jack Daniel
CARACAS (Reuters) - The front-runner to face Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in an election next year said on Saturday a corruption investigation ordered by the country's top judge showed the government feared his growing popularity.
Popular candidates have in the past been excluded from running in elections during Chavez's government, and some say the investigation against opposition leader Gov. Henrique Capriles could be intended to block his 2012 run.
Recent polls give Capriles a wide lead over rivals for the opposition nomination, which will be decided in February primaries. At least one poll shows him with more support than Chavez, who has had to reduce early campaigning because of cancer.
"The government is terrified of what we represent -- the future," Capriles told Reuters. "These smoke screens demonstrate the fear they have that there will be a change."
The Supreme Court on Friday ordered the attorney general's office to investigate an accusation that companies belonging to Capriles' family benefited from contracts in the state he governs.
Capriles said the allegations, which were first made two years ago by an activist in Chavez's Socialist Party, were ridiculous.
Depending on the results of the investigation, the court could decide to try Capriles, who is governor of one of the OPEC nation's most populous states.
Capriles considers himself to be center-left and uses populist politics to win support from Chavez's poor power base.
Both the Supreme Court and the attorney general are close allies of Chavez but even some high profile Chavez supporters have warned that attacking Capriles could be a dangerous strategy ahead of the elections.
(Editing by Bill Trott)