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Venezuela sets election for April 14

Venezuela''s elections council chief, Tibisay Lucena, announces April 14 as the date for the country''s presidential election.

Venezuelans will vote April 14 to choose a successor to Hugo Chávez, the elections commission announced yesterday as increasingly strident political rhetoric begins to roil this polarized country.

The Constitution mandated the election be held within 30 days of Chávez’s March 5 death, but the date picked falls outside that period. Critics of the socialist government already complained that officials violated the Constitution by swearing in Vice-President Nicolás Maduro as acting leader Friday night.

“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.

Some people have speculated Venezuela will not be ready to organize the vote in time, but elections council chief Tibisay Lucena said the country’s electronic voting system was fully prepared.

Lucena announced the date on state television, appearing in a small inset as the main picture showed people filing past Chávez’s coffin at the military academy in Caracas, where his body has lain in state since Wednesday.

Chávez’s boisterous, passionate state funeral Friday often felt like a political rally for his anointed successor, Maduro, who eulogized him by pledging eternal loyalty and vowing Chávez’s movement will never be defeated. Maduro is expected to become the candidate of Chávez’s socialist party.

Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, coordinator of the opposition coalition, immediately followed the election announcement by offering his bloc’s presidential candidacy to Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state who lost to Chávez in October.

Capriles thanked Venezuela’s opposition coalition for backing him as its candidate, but stopped short of explicitly accepting the nomination.

Mariana Bacalao, a professor of public opinion at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, said the passion on both sides just hours after Chávez’s funeral raised fear of far worse to come in the weeks ahead.

“You can expect during the campaign that these rages will be unleashed,” she said. “Maduro needs more than ever to have an election with the participation of the opposition, because he needs legitimacy.”

Opinion polls have shown Maduro as the likely winner, but Chávez’s opponents said they wanted a chance to end “Chavismo” at the voting booth. “We want change. We are tired of the Chávez era. It's been 14 years,” said Yesenia Herrera, 33, a cook at a Chinese restaurant in an affluent quarter of Caracas.

Maduro has vowed to keep Chávez’s self-styled socialist revolution alive.

In his speech after his swearing-in, Maduro took shots at the United States, the media, international capitalism and domestic opponents he often depicted as treacherous. He claimed the allegiance of Venezuela’s army, referring to them as the “armed forces of Chávez,” despite the Constitution barring the military from taking sides in politics.

The opposition has denounced the transition as an unconstitutional power grab, and Capriles said his side was studying its strategy for the vote, which will be held in the shadow of the government’s efforts to immortalize Chávez. Since his death, the former paratrooper has been compared to Jesus Christ and early 19th century Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar, and the government announced his body would be embalmed and put on eternal display.

“This transgression is unprecedented in the history of the republic,” opposition lawmaker Marìa 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 Nicolás president.”

Mounting political divide

Observers voiced mounting concern about the deep political divide gripping the country, with half of it in a near frenzy of adulation and the other feeling targeted.

“Everything that happened yesterday (with the funeral and Maduro’s speech) are outward signs of a fascistic esthetic, complete with armbands,” said Vicente González de la Vega, a professor of law at Caracas’ Universidad Metropolitana.

“It is the cult of the adored leader, an escape from reality... They are trying to impose on the rest of the country a new, pagan religion.” He said the ruling party was playing with fire with its strong nationalistic rhetoric and the implication a vote against Maduro was somehow subversive.

Capriles, too, has used emotionally charged language in his public comments. On Friday he denounced Maduro as a shameless liar and condescendingly referred to him as “boy.”

In his acceptance speech on Friday, Maduro warned the opposition not to boycott, saying it “would be a grave error.”

A boycott of 2005 legislative elections was widely seen as disastrous for the opposition, letting Chávez’s supporters win all 167 seats and allowing him to govern unimpeded by any legislative rivals.

In the streets yesterday, Venezuelans said they expected the opposition to take part in the poll. “They will be present, yes, they will take part in the election,” said Benito Villalba, a 62-year-old retiree who said he would vote for Maduro.

Chávez supporter Eloy Escobar, a 51-year-old who works at a toy distributor, said he remained loyal to Chávez — and Maduro. “I think it’s great, and with this, I return to the road that Chávez wanted,” he said.

Others said they were nervous about what the election could bring. “I am afraid something bad will happen, that violence will be unleashed,” said Greymar Salazar, a 29-year old housewife and opposition supporter. “There are many people who are unhappy with what happened with (the swearing-in of) Maduro.”

Elvira Orozco, a 31-year-old business owner, said she planned to sit out the vote to protest Maduro’s swearing-in. “What they want is to say that here there’s a democracy, but here they violate the Constitution and there’s no authority who says anything,” Orozco said.

Chávez 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 yesterday, 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 Chávez,” Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on Twitter.

As Maduro spoke in Congress Friday, 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 Chávez’s demise. They toasted each other, “Happy goodbye, Chávez, we will not miss you!”

Herald with AP, Reuters

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