CARACAS Venezuela will hold a presidential election on April 14, officials said on Saturday, as acting President Nicolas Maduro tries to benefit from an emotional outpouring for his late mentor, Hugo Chavez, and win his own term in office.
Maduro, a physically imposing former union leader who served as foreign minister and vice president under Chavez, has vowed to keep Chavez's self-styled socialist revolution alive.
He will likely face off against Henrique Capriles, 40, the centrist governor of Miranda state. Capriles, who lost to Chavez in a vote last October, thanked Venezuela's opposition coalition on Saturday for backing him as its candidate, but stopped short of explicitly accepting the nomination.
Opinion polls have shown Maduro as the likely winner, but Chavez's opponents said they wanted a chance to end "Chavismo" at the voting booth. "We want change. We are tired of the Chavez era. It's been 14 years," said Yesenia Herrera, 33, a cook at a Chinese restaurant in an affluent quarter of Caracas.
Maduro was sworn in as acting president in Congress on Friday and handed the red, yellow and blue presidential sash.
"I asked (the election authority) to comply with legal and constitutional obligations and immediately call elections," Maduro, 50, told Congress as he cemented his position as heir-in-waiting.
Chavez was immensely popular among the poor and they have vowed to back Maduro. Millions have filed past his casket to pay their last respects and were still visiting him on Saturday.
The Supreme Court has ruled Maduro does not need to step down in order to campaign, but the move was denounced by opponents as a violation of the constitution and a "fraud."
As Maduro spoke in Congress, residents of some wealthy neighbourhoods of Caracas banged pots and pans in a traditional form of protest. At one building in a wealthy corner of Caracas, people drank wine and whisky around a swimming pool, rejoicing at Chavez's demise. They toasted each other, "Happy goodbye, Chavez, we will not miss you!"
HERO OR AUTOCRAT?
Chavez was a hero to millions of mostly poor supporters for using Venezuela's oil wealth to finance heavy social spending, but he was seen as an autocrat by his opponents. He died on Tuesday at age 58 after a two-year battle with cancer.
"The excluded and invisible, the 'losers' of savage capitalism, were made visible and victorious with Chavez," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on Twitter.
Like communist leaders Lenin, Stalin and Mao, Chavez's remains are to be embalmed and put on display "for eternity."
An eclectic cast of celebrities, leftist and centre-right presidents attended Chavez's state funeral on Friday. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a close ally, broke with protocol to kiss the coffin, while Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn was also in attendance.
It is likely to be a particularly bitter election campaign in the OPEC heavyweight nation, which boasts the world's largest proven oil reserves.
The opposition had accused the government of trampling on the constitution during its handling of Chavez's battle with cancer, and is furious that Maduro was allowed to take on the job of caretaker president while he campaigns for the job.
"This transgression is unprecedented in the history of the republic," opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado said on Twitter.
Capriles called it an abuse of power.
"To become president, the people have to elect you," he said on Friday. "No one elected Nicolas president."
(Reporting by Simon Gardner, Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne, Terry Wade, Deisy Buitrago, Marianna Parraga, Pablo Garibian, Diego Ore, Patricia Velez and Ana Isabel Martinez; Editing by Eric Beech and Todd Eastham)