Chávez's Heir Apparent Seen Riding Late Leader's Coattails to Victory in Election Expected Next Month
CARACAS—The outpouring of adoration for Venezuela's charismatic late leader Hugo Chávez on Thursday underscored the challenge the country's opposition faced in besting his political heir, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, in snap elections expected next month.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans jammed a broad avenue leading to a military academy where Mr. Chávez's body, dressed in a military uniform in an open casket, was on display. They paid their respects to the charismatic leader who used high oil prices to create social spending programs that made him enormously popular during his 14 years in power.
Many, like 70-year-old grandmother Inés Lara, had traveled for several hours from other cities to catch a glimpse of a man whom they had never met, but who was always on their TV or radio issuing decrees, telling stories, singing, or making jokes.
"I arrived last night to see him, but I don't want to see him there [in a coffin]. I want to see him on the stage, full of life, like he was," said Ms. Lara, fighting back tears.
Venezuelan law calls for elections within a month after the death of a president. Mr. Maduro, 50 years old, was tapped by Mr. Chávez as his successor in December in his last public appearance before undergoing cancer surgery. He died on Tuesday at 58 years old from complications related to the disease.
Venezuela law calls for an election if a presidency is vacated during the first four years of a six-year term. If the post is vacated in the last two years, the vice president serves the remaining years.
Mr. Maduro will be sworn in as interim leader Friday night, the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, said on state television on Thursday. Mr. Cabello called for a session of the legislative body on Friday at 7 p.m. local time to conduct the ceremony. He assured that authorities are following the provisions laid out in the country's constitution.
Henrique Capriles, 40, the opposition leader who lost to Mr. Chávez in hotly contested October elections, will be officially named the candidate, likely after the weeklong mourning period that the government has declared, people in the opposition said. Mr. Capriles is seen, once again, as the underdog.
His real opponent, in many ways, is not Mr. Maduro, but the spirit of Mr. Chávez, a former tank commander who garnered a near-saint-like persona during his presidency. Mr. Chávez never lost a vote in life, and seems likely not to do so in death.
"The opposition has to consider that winning an election in 30 days or less against the state machine would be like winning an election against Jesus Christ," said Félix Pifano, a 46-year-old consultant and Caracas resident.
Ramón José Medina, a spokesman for the opposition alliance, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, said Mr. Capriles would be the "obvious first option" as a candidate.
No polls have been released yet showing a Maduro-versus-Capriles match-up after the death of Mr. Chávez. But a February poll by local pollster Hinterlaces showed Mr. Maduro beating Mr. Capriles 50%-36%, with the rest undecided.
The opposition will campaign on an economy that is close to crisis, with high inflation and shortages of everything from food to bicycles. Adding to the economic woes is a high homicide rate that makes Venezuela one of the region's most dangerous countries, and a persistently shaky electrical grid that often causes widespread power outages.
But the opposition will face an uphill climb putting together a campaign quickly compared with the government, which has formidable campaign machinery at its disposal, including state media and tens of thousands of bureaucrats who are called to act like unofficial campaign workers come election time.
In October's election, for instance, Mr. Capriles faced a huge disadvantage on the airwaves because most channels in Venezuela are government-run, and featured a barrage of thinly disguised campaign material. The opposition was limited to three minutes a day of advertising on national television.
Making matters more difficult, the opposition may also have to temper its criticisms of Mr. Chávez's allies, who are likely to benefit from the widespread sympathy for the late president.
"The question is: How critical can they really be of a man that has just died?" asked Standard Chartered Latin America strategist Bret Rosen. "With the wound of his death so fresh, it will be tricky for them to run their campaign in a way that will get them votes."
Already, the government has used the image of Mr. Chávez almost nonstop in the past few months, when the leader was struggling to recover in hospital.
"Those who think that just because of his physical departure that Chávez is finished are diametrically wrong. What's coming in the immediate future of Venezuela is more Chávez," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on state TV.
Mr. Maduro is an ex-bus driver and union boss who rose through the socialist party ranks over the past 15 years and is still known mostly for his loyalty to El Comandante rather than for his own talents.
"There is no transfer of charisma," said Oscar Schemel, head of Hinterlaces pollster.
But Oscar Schemel, a pollster, still expects Mr. Maduro to use "the religious emotion for Chávez" to comfortably thwart any opposition challenge.
Mr. Capriles is governor of the populous state of Miranda, one of only three governor seats out of a total 23 currently held by the opposition. The athletic former assemblyman ran a hectic "door-to-door" nationwide campaign last year targeting slums and rural areas, traditional Chávez strongholds. He promised to maintain many of the leftist leader's social programs but said he would run them more efficiently while cutting off aid to Mr. Chávez's political allies in places like Cuba, Iran and Belarus.
Although Mr. Capriles lost the vote by 11 percentage points, he posed the greatest challenge to date to the president, securing around 44% of the votes. Mr. Capriles, a practicing catholic, also faced a flurry of attacks from state figures who criticized his Jewish ancestry, questioned his sexual orientation and often accused him of being in cahoots with foreign, mostly U.S., interests.
Those attacks seem set to continue. Last week, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua accused Mr. Capriles of meeting with enemies of Venezuela during a trip to the U.S. and suggested that whatever deals he was making in New York would lead to "the sale of the country's sovereignty, hunger, misery, exclusion, torture and death."
Mr. Capriles rejected the claims and posted on his FB +4.10% page a smiling photo with his two nephews who he said he was visiting under the caption: "Spending time with two grand conspirators, my dear nephews."