Sabaneta, Venezuela - Venezuela's presidential campaign to replace Hugo Chavez formally kicked off on Tuesday, with his chosen successor, acting President Nicolas Maduro, vowing to honor his socialist legacy at the late leader's childhood home.
As Maduro visited Chavez's hometown of Sabaneta in the west, opposition leader Henrique Capriles was heading to the opposite side of the country in the eastern state of Monagas for the short campaign ahead of the April 14 vote.
Both candidates have vowed to canvass all 23 states over 10 days in what is shaping up as an intense and emotionally-charged election to replace the man who led the oil-rich nation for 14
The rivals have traded barbs for weeks since Chavez lost his two-year battle with cancer on March 5 and left a nation divided between supporters of his self-styled socialist revolution and detractors who accused him of strong-arm tactics.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former foreign minister and vice president, was accompanied by hundreds of supporters, government officials and Chavez relatives as he visited the fallen president's family home, now a local headquarters of the ruling PSUV socialist party.
“We will fulfill the will and legacy of president Chavez,” Maduro said, describing the house as the “cradle of the Bolivarian revolution.”
“We feel comandante Chavez within us, like a father. We come to make a commitment with this land that saw his birth, pledge to never fail him and build socialism to its last consequences,” he said.
Maduro has a double-digit lead over Capriles in opinion polls, thanks in part to a wave of sympathy over the death of Chavez, who was immensely popular among supporters of his oil-funded social programs.
Chavez brought free health care and subsidized food programs to poor areas while reducing poverty in the Andean nation. But the opposition points out that Venezuela suffers from a high murder rate, soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods.
Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, gave Chavez his biggest electoral challenge in October elections, although he still lost by 11 points. Chavez was unable to attend his January 10 swearing-in ceremony because he was receiving treatment in Cuba at the time.
The opposition was further weakened after a big defeat in regional elections in December that left it with only three of 23
Even in death, Chavez is casting a huge shadow over Venezuela, with a myth building around his larger-than-life personality. This could benefit Maduro, who constantly lionizes his mentor.
Maduro has compared Chavez to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, referring to him on Tuesday as a “prophet,” a “giant of the fatherland” and the “supreme commander.”
Adopting Chavez's man-of-the-people style, the acting president hugged and greeted thousands of supporters, rode a Jeep in the red colors of Chavismo and sang along to local music known as llano.
While Maduro was in Chavez's homeland, Capriles was due to formally launch his campaign in Maturin, capital of the state of Monagas.
“Let's go faith, hope and courage,” Capriles wrote on Twitter. “Today we continue our crusade.”
The National Electoral Council, which the opposition accuses of being biased towards Chavismo, called for a peaceful campaign in the politically polarized nation.
“This campaign will take place in a delicate emotional context, so we urge all parties to ... avoid expressions that could tense up the electoral environment,” said council president Tibisay Lucena. - Sapa-AFP