CARACAS Venezuela's Hugo Chavez said on Friday that if an opposition candidate wins this year's presidential election, he will be the first to recognize the rival's victory and hand over power.
The most extreme critics of the controversial South American socialist suggest he could refuse to accept the results if he loses the ballot on October 7.
In a marathon state of the nation speech to parliament, Chavez, 57, scoffed at that and called on opposition leaders to pledge publicly to respect the outcome.
"If one of you wins the election, I would be the first to recognize it, and I ask the same of you," he said, making a point of greeting some of his most virulent foes on his way in.
"We are going to show the world the political maturity that we have acquired in these years of democratic revolution."
The unashamedly populist Chavez travelled from the Miraflores presidential palace to the National Assembly in the back of an open-topped limo, with bodyguards running alongside and throngs of red-clad supporters cheering as they lined the route.
This year's election battle is shaping up to be the toughest that Chavez has faced in his 13 years in power.
He underwent cancer surgery in June, then four rounds of chemotherapy. A newly united opposition coalition sees this election as its best chance to unseat him.
Most analysts, however, see Chavez having the edge and securing another six-year term.
A report on Friday by Control Risks, a global consultancy, said Chavez had a 55 percent chance of winning, while the opposition had a 40 percent chance of victory. The report also said there was a 5 percent chance Chavez would install an open dictatorship if he lost.
"Although a deterioration in Chavez's health could alter the outlook, he remains the marginal favourite to win re-election because of his greater campaign resources, de facto control over the electoral authorities and undoubted charisma," wrote analyst Nicholas Watson of the report's most likely scenario.
'I NEEDED CANCER'
Chavez has appeared stronger in recent weeks and his hair has begun to grow back after the chemotherapy. He looked lively as he hosted a summit in Caracas last month, then made his first official foreign trip since he underwent surgery in Cuba.
"I think I needed the cancer. I thank God for sending me this illness that helped stop me cold," he said in a speech that was dragging into its eighth hour by mid-evening. "Among others things, to see better, to think better, to study better."
Parliamentary elections in September showed South America's top oil exporter basically split down the middle between Chavez supporters and opponents.
The opposition coalition will hold primaries next month to select a single candidate who will face Chavez in October.
The latest two opinion polls put the youthful Miranda state governor, Henrique Capriles Radonski, firmly in the lead with between 35 percent and 55 percent of votes.
Opposition legislators rose to challenge Chavez at various times during his speech on Friday. One waved a placard with the annual food inflation figure - 33 percent.
Another, presidential aspirant Maria Corina Machado, complained passionately about shortages of basic goods like milk, untamed crime and failed nationalizations.
"We've been listening to you for eight hours describe a country very different to the one we mothers know," she said, telling Chavez: "Mr. President, your time is finished."
Chavez replied sharply, telling Machado - who is trailing badly in polls for the opposition primary - she should win that first before having the right to debate with him.
"An eagle doesn't chase a fly, deputy," he told her, using a local saying to put her down.
In his speech, Chavez also announced he would close the Venezuelan consulate in Miami, rather than engage in tit-for-tat expulsions after the U.S. government declared Venezuela's consul general persona non grata at the weekend.
The measure will be a nuisance for the tens of thousands of Venezuelans, largely Chavez opponents, who live in Florida. It could even stop them voting in the opposition primary or the presidential election.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Stacey Joyce)