CARACAS -- Just months after losing his race for the presidency, Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, may get a second shot at the top-spot and take on the anointed successor of the late Hugo Chávez.
The country will hold new presidential elections April 14, the National Election Council said Saturday. Minutes later, the coalition of opposition forces, known as the MUD, said it was unanimously backing Capriles. Although he lost to Chávez by 11 points in October, Capriles’ energetic door-to-door campaign made him a national figure and gave the battered opposition its best showing in 13 years.
If 40-year-old Capriles accepts the challenge, he will be facing Nicolás Maduro, 50, who was sworn in as interim president Friday night. Maduro, who was Chávez’s longtime foreign minster, has vowed to continue his boss’s “Socialist Revolution,” which has provided housing, education and healthcare to the nation’s poorest, even as it trampled on civil liberties.
The elections were triggered when Chávez, 58, died Tuesday after an 18-month battle with an undisclosed form of cancer.
In a brief speech announcing the backing of Capriles, MUD Executive Secretary Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said the government had an unfair advantage but that Capriles would prevail and lead an administration that would represent “all Venezuelans.”
In a Twitter message late Friday, Capriles thanked the MUD for its backing and said he would announce his decision “in coming hours.”
The tight election schedule is expected to benefit Maduro, who is riding the wave of sympathy generated by Chávez’s death. Tens of thousands of supporters continue to wait in line for hours to catch a glimpse of the fallen leader, who held office for 14 years and won multiple elections.
The election will also fall just days after the government traditionally marks the April 11, 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez. The administration usually commemorates the event by flooding the airwaves with documentaries and programming that paint the opposition, including Capriles, as coup mongers.
Meanwhile, the opposition reiterated charges that the National Assembly broke the law by moving Maduro, who Chávez appointed as his vice president in October, into the top spot before the election.
Under the constitution, everyone but the president must leave their post to run for the job.
“This is a macabre plan to give Nicolás Maduro an illegal advantage so that he can have all the prerogatives of a sitting president,” said Simón Calzadilla, the head of the center-left Progressive Venezuelan Movement, which is part of the MUD.
Among those prerogatives will be Maduro’s ability to call cadenas, preempting all radio and television broadcasts. Watchdog groups said Chávez used cadenas extensively during the last campaign to skirt restrictions on political ads.
During a press conference Friday, Calzadilla also said the government’s decision to embalm Chávez and keep him on display “for eternity” violated the president’s wish to have a Christian burial in his hometown. He suggested Maduro wanted to keep the body visible to win more sympathy votes.
“In the interest of an electoral advantage, they are ignoring [Chávez’s] Christian faith,” he said. “If they are capable of doing all of this, what do you think they will do once they are exercising power?”
Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena said the government has invited the Union of South American Nations to observe the elections, as well as a handful of local groups. Municipal elections, scheduled for July, are being put on hold.
Lucena challenged those who question the fairness and transparency of the vote calling them the “provocations of the usual misfits.”
“Venezuelans will show the world what our participatory democracy is made of,” she said.