By Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) -Venezuela’s major opposition coalition will back Edmundo Gonzalez for president in July’s election, its leadership said on Friday, after intense internal negotiations to determine who could take on President Nicolas Maduro.

The opposition has struggled to define a candidate for the July 28 contest since the South American nation’s top court upheld a ban on office for the winner of the opposition primary, Maria Corina Machado. She says the ban is illegal.

The ban and several recent arrests of activists and opposition members have drawn repeated international condemnation.

The United States reimposed broad oil sanctions this week after it said Maduro’s socialist government had failed to comply with the terms of an electoral deal agreed with the opposition in October.

Venezuela is enduring a prolonged economic slump that has led some eight million people, more than a quarter of the country’s population, to leave in recent years in search of better prospects.

Despite the naming of Gonzalez, the opposition fears that anyone named as the unity candidate could be subject to a ban before the contest.

Gonzalez, 74, is a former ambassador to Argentina and is already registered to compete in the contest, after he was put forward by the opposition Democratic Unity group in March.

His registration had been considered a placeholder while internal negotiations took place. The decision to keep him on the ballot comes just a day before a substitution deadline.

“The unitary platform has just unanimously approved the candidacy of Edmundo Gonzalez as the unity candidate after a high-level and respectful debate where both Maria Corina Machado and Manuel Rosales participated,” said coalition leader Omar Barboza.

Rosales, the 71-year-old governor of Zulia province, had registered under a different opposition party, but Barboza said he will step aside to back Gonzalez.

Some 46% of people polled by More Consulting this month said they would support the candidate backed by Machado, while some 21% said they would support Maduro and 5% said they would vote for Rosales.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas; Writing by David Alire Garcia and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by William Mallard)

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