Venezuela opposition leader Capriles mulls over candidacy

CARACAS (AFP) - Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles weighed on Sunday a run against Hugo Chavez's handpicked successor in an April 14 election, with the late leader casting a huge shadow over the campaign.

Mr Capriles, who lost to Mr Chavez in the October election, said he would announce later Sunday whether he will take on acting President Nicolas Maduro and the 14-year socialist revolution that has divided the oil-rich nation.

The snap election promises to be bitter, with the ruling party vowing to keep Mr Chavez's legacy alive and the opposition accusing the government of violating the constitution by making Mr Maduro acting president.

Mr Maduro accepted the backing of the communist party, effectively delivering his first campaign speech since the election authorities set the date for polls, with words of praise for Mr Chavez and disdain for the "reactionary, troglodyte right-wing."

"I am a man of the street. I am not in this post of acting president and I won't be president from April 15 because of vanity or personal aspirations," the burly, 50-year-old former bus driver and union activist told a communist party conference.

"I will be president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces because that was the order that he (Chavez) gave me and I will fulfill his orders," said Mr Maduro, who will register as a candidate on Monday.

Candidates have until Monday afternoon to register for the snap election.

Mr Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who wants to pursue Brazilian-style centre-left policies, thanked the opposition for offering him the nomination, writing on Twitter that he would "speak to the country about my decision" late Sunday.

As Mr Capriles mulled over his next move, the late president loomed large over the election, with throngs of Chavez loyalists continuing to file past his open casket at a Caracas military academy under a baking sun.

A band playing the "llanera" country music from his home region played songs and shouted "Viva comandante Chavez! The immortal Comandante!" "This will be a very complex election, with a very short campaign in which the government has a clear advantage emotionally with the recent death of Chavez," said Luis Vicente Leon, director of pollsters Datanalisis.

"It will be a battle between the divine and the human," he said.

The government plans to embalm and preserve Chavez "like Lenin" to rest in a glass casket "for eternity," a move decried by the opposition, which claimed that it went against the president's wishes.

A recent survey by pollsters Hinterlaces gave Maduro a 14-point advantage over Mr Capriles, though the opposition leader has questioned the firm's reliability in the past.

The Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD), a large coalition of wide-ranging parties, unanimously picked Mr Capriles as its candidate. Last year, Mr Capriles was nominated in an unprecedented primary within the historically fractured opposition.

"This will be a national unity government, without divisions, without exclusions, without discrimination," said MUD executive secretary Ramon Guillermo Aveledo.

The opposition largely boycotted Mr Maduro's swearing-in late Friday, hours after Mr Chavez was given a lavish state funeral with more than 30 foreign leaders, mostly from Latin America, including his closest ally, Cuban President Raul Castro.

Mr Capriles denounced the inauguration as a "constitutional fraud" and an abuse of power, claiming that Mr Maduro should have stepped down as vice-president to run first. He told Mr Maduro: "The people didn't vote for you, kid." Mr Maduro countered that the opposition was misinterpreting the constitution.

The rivals began trading barbs well before Mr Chavez lost his battle to cancer last Tuesday at the age of 58.

Mr Maduro has called Mr Capriles the "decadent prince of the parasitic bourgeoisie," while the governor said the former bus driver and union activist was "lazy" and a "slacker" who "has never worked." Mr Chavez defeated Mr Capriles by 11 points in the October presidential election, but Mr Capriles gave the opposition its best result ever against the president, garnering 44 per cent of the votes.

The youthful, energetic governor drew massive crowds during the last campaign, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Caracas for a rally in the final stretch of the race.

But Mr Chavez was propelled to victory again thanks to his popularity among the nation's once-neglected poor, who worshipped him for the oil-funded social programme that brought them health care, housing and education. His expropriations and nationalisations of key industries, however, have riled the wealthy.

The opposition accused Mr Chavez of using his position to dominate the airwaves and use state funds to finance his campaign.

Mr Chavez, who forged a near-mystical bond with the country's poor, has been lying in state since Wednesday and thousands have filed past his half-open casket nonstop, many vowing to follow his last wish that they vote for Maduro.

As they stood in line, they chanted: "Chavez I swear to you, my vote is for Maduro!"

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.