Venezuelans will vote April 14 to choose a successor to Hugo Chavez, the elections commission announced Saturday as increasingly strident political rhetoric begins to roil this polarized country.
The constitution mandated the election be held within 30 days of Chavez's March 5 death, but the date picked falls outside that period. Critics of the socialist government already complained that officials violated the constitution by swearing in Vice-President Nicolas Maduro as acting leader Friday night.
Some people have speculated Venezuela will not be ready to organize the vote in time, but elections council chief Tibisay Lucena said the country's electronic voting system was fully prepared.
Lucena announced the date on state television while a small inset in the picture showed people filing past Chavez's coffin at the military academy in Caracas, where his body has lain in state since Wednesday.
Chavez's boisterous state funeral Friday often felt like a political rally for his anointed successor, Maduro, who eulogized him by pledging eternal loyalty and vowing Chavez's movement will never be defeated. Maduro is expected to run as the candidate of Chavez's socialist party.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, co-ordinator of the opposition coalition, immediately followed the election announcement by offering his bloc's presidential candidacy to Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in October. A Capriles adviser said the governor would announce his decision Sunday.
David Smilde, an analyst with the U.S.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said the opposition needs to run a candidate in the presidential election even though he believes it will almost certainly lose.
Smilde said he wasn't sure Capriles will accept the candidacy.
"If he says he doesn't want to run I could totally understand that," Smilde said. "He is likely going to lose, and if he loses this election, he's probably going to be done."
In that case the opposition would be wise to run someone such as Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledesma or Henry Falcone, governor of Lara state and one of just three opposition governors, he said.
That would give the opposition an opportunity to clearly articulate its platform and vision.
"Really what this campaign would be about is allowing the opposition to put themselves in position for the future, to show that they have some ideas for the country," Smilde said.
In his speech after his swearing-in Friday, Maduro took shots at the United States, the media, international capitalism and domestic opponents he often depicted as treacherous. He claimed the allegiance of Venezuela's army, referring to them as the "armed forces of Chavez," despite the constitution barring the military from taking sides in politics.
The opposition has denounced the transition as an unconstitutional power grab, while the government moves to immortalize Chavez. Since his death, the former paratrooper has been compared to Jesus Christ and early-19th century Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar, and the government announced that his body would be embalmed and put on eternal display.
Concerns over political divide
Edith Palmeira, a 47-year-old Caracas resident at a park Saturday in central Caracas, said she would vote for Maduro, but made clear her allegiance was based purely on her love of Chavez.
"Imitations are never as good as the original," Palmeira said. "But I think he must have grown as a person during so much time at the president's side. He must have learned to be a president."
Elvira Orozco, a 31-year-old business owner, said she planned to sit out the vote to protest Maduro's swearing-in Friday.
"What they want is to say that here there's a democracy, but here they violate the constitution and there's no authority who says anything," Orozco said.
Observers voiced mounting concern about the deep political divide gripping Venezuela, with half of it in a near frenzy of adulation and the other feeling targeted.
"Everything that happened yesterday (with the funeral and Maduro's speech) are outward signs of a fascistic esthetic, complete with armbands," said Vicente Gonzalez de la Vega, a professor of law at Caracas' Universidad Metropolitana. "It is the cult of the adored leader, an escape from reality. ... They are trying to impose on the rest of the country a new pagan religion."
He said the ruling party was playing with fire with its strong nationalistic rhetoric and the implication that a vote against Maduro was somehow subversive.
Capriles, too, has used emotionally charged language in his public comments. On Friday he denounced Maduro as a shameless liar who had not been elected by the people, and condescendingly referred to him as "boy."
Opposition figures have said they are concerned about the election's fairness, particularly given the public vows of allegiance to Chavez from senior military officials. Capriles lost to Chavez in Oct. 7 elections, but he garnered 45 per cent of the vote, which was the most anyone had ever won against the late president.
A boycott of 2005 legislative elections was widely seen as disastrous for the opposition, letting Chavez's supporters win all 167 seats and allowing him to govern unimpeded by any legislative rivals.