Caracas: Venezuela marched Saturday towards a bitter election to succeed Hugo Chavez after his political heir took over as acting president in a ceremony disputed by the opposition following the leftist leader’s funeral.
The “most likely” date for the election is April 14, a source in the national electoral council told AFP before the panel was due to meet on Saturday to make a decision.
The meeting comes one day after Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, was sworn in as acting leader in a ceremony largely boycotted by the opposition, branding the move unconstitutional.
The political hostilities began just hours after Venezuela and more than 30 foreign leaders gave Chavez a rousing state funeral, with Maduro delivering a fiery eulogy promising to be loyal to his fallen leader “beyond death.”
Chavez lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday at the age of 58, leaving behind a divided country after a 14-year presidency whose oil-funded socialist policies delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy.
The firebrand leftist leader named Maduro, 50, his political heir before leaving for Cuba in December for a new round of cancer surgery, urging Venezuelans to vote for him if he died.
Maduro has emulated his mentor’s combative style ever since, displaying the same fire as he addressed the National Assembly after his inauguration, railing against capitalism and the opposition.
The former vice-president vowed “absolute loyalty” to Chavez before donning the presidential sash, his voice cracking as he declared: “Sorry for our pain and tears, but this presidency belongs to our comandante.”
He urged the electoral council to “immediately” call an election and stated: “From here we go to the street to build the strength that gives continuity of this socialist revolution of the 21st century.”
The assembly burst into chants of “Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro!”
Before he was sworn in, his most likely challenger, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, denounced the inauguration as a “constitutional fraud” and abuse of power by the government.
“Nicolas, nobody elected you president. The people didn’t vote for you, kid,” said Capriles, 40, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election.
The opposition has argued that the constitution calls for the National Assembly speaker to take over as interim leader.
Chavez beat Capriles by 11 points but the Miranda state governor gave the opposition its best result ever against the former paratrooper, garnering 44 per cent, or 6.5 million, of ballots.
A recent survey by pollsters Hinterlaces gave Maduro a 14-point advantage of Capriles, though the opposition leader has questioned the firm’s reliability in the past.
Venezuela has given Chavez an extended farewell, with hundreds of thousands of people swarming the streets of Caracas on Wednesday, cheering and crying as his coffin was slowly taken to a military academy.
Chavez, who forged a near-mystical bond with the country’s once-neglected poor, has been lying in state at the academy since then and throngs have filed past his half-open casket nonstop.
Many of his followers say they will follow their leader’s wishes and vote for Maduro, even though some say they still are getting to know him and that the former bus driver and union activist lacks Chavez’s charisma.
“We don’t know him as well as Chavez,” said Maria Teresa Colella, a 38-year-old doctor who was standing in line with her father to see the late president’s face. But, she added, “if [Chavez] designated him, we trust him.”
Chavez’s body will lie in state for seven more days and officials said it will be embalmed and preserved “like Lenin” to rest in a glass casket in the military barracks where he plotted a failed coup in 1992.
He was given a lavish state funeral on Friday, with more than 30 foreign leaders and celebrities paying their last respects to the man who built a leftist bloc in Latin America to counter US influence in the region.
The guests ranged from Cuban leader Raul Castro, his closest ally, to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn and US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
“There you are, undefeated, pure, transparent, unique, true, alive forever,” Maduro said as his voice rose and cracked in a eulogy that both praised his mentor and railed against his opponents.
“Mission accomplished comandante!,” he exclaimed as the guests applauded in a raucous ceremony filled with music, cheers and chants for Chavez.
The service even brought Ahmadinejad and Belarussian veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko to tears as the two, sitting next to each other, wiped tears away tears as a band played one of Chavez’s favourite sentimental songs.
The ceremony was interrupted a few times by chants of “Chavez lives, the struggle goes on!”