When Venezuelans return to the polls in new presidential elections on April 14, analysts are predicting a decisive win for Nicolas Maduro, the candidate of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
In December, the late president Hugo Chavez urged his supporters to back Maduro as PSUV candidate should Chavez’s worsening health prevent him from fulfilling his presidential term.
Under the Venezuelan constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days of the resignation or death of the president.
Less than 24 hours after Chavez's state funeral on March 8, the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced the snap elections. Maduro, who was sworn in by the National Assembly as interim president, will face off against right-wing opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Chavez passed away on March 5, after cancer treatment in Havana and Caracas.
When Maduro announced his candidacy on March 11, supporters rallied across the country. Venezuelan media reported that thousands of Chavistas gathered outside the CNE to witness his registration.
“I am not Chavez, but I am his son and all of us together, the people, are Chavez,” Maduro told the crowd.
As well as promising to further the Bolivarian revolution that has halved poverty and promoted participatory democracy, Maduro said he would prioritise tackling crime, with a focus on gun violence.
In Merida, supporters gathered in the main square at 10am, where television screens were set up to see Maduro's speech in Caracas.
The night before, supporters had gathered in the square to pay tribute to Chavez with a candlelit vigil.
Venezuela Analysis journalist Tamara Pearson attended the event, part of five days of continuous rallying. The square had been closed to traffic since March 5, and supporters have gathered daily for speeches, music and memorial events.
She told Green Left Weekly that by nightfall on March 11, “people were still leaving candles, flowers, and messages for Chavez”.
“There were still tears, it's just so clear that he was much more than a politician to millions of people here.”
In the morning, the statue of Simon Bolivar — whose liberation of much of South America from colonial rule helped inspire the Bolivarian revolution — was surrounded by wreaths, and the government buildings were papered in messages to the deceased president.
Opposition-aligned polling company Hinterlaces estimates that Maduro has a 14% lead over his opponent.
Capriles ran against Chavez last October, losing by 11%. Chavez ran on a draft 39-point “Socialist Plan for the Nation 2013-19” that set out a path of deepening socialist transformation and building a revolutionary democracy based on popular power.
In December, mass meetings across the country debated the draft plan and proposed a large number of amendments, sending the final document to be adopted by the National Assembly.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who served as foreign minister and vice president in Chavez’s government, has said this plan would guide his government.
AFP reported that Luis Vicente Leon, director of another opposition-aligned polling company Datanalisis, said the ongoing outpouring of grief will benefit Maduro's campaign.
Despite rumours in recent months about Capriles' ability to hold the opposition together, he has taken the international media spotlight with regular accusations of government deception and fraud.
Capriles’ vitriolic claims have ranged from accusations that Maduro breached the constitution by accepting the role of acting president, to recent statements that the government is “using the body of the president [Chavez] to stage a political campaign”.
However, polls indicate that while the media may be paying attention to him, Venezuelans are not.
By 11am, the crowd in Merida had swelled to hundreds, many chanting “Chavez said it, he said it very strongly, the new president's name is Maduro”.
One Venezuelan who said he will definitely vote for Maduro was local sports teacher Freddy Vemdes.
A supporter of leftist parties since the 1970s, Vemdes told GLW that he will continue to support the “Bolivarian process”.
“Maduro is a revolutionary. That's why he's our candidate, [because] he's the most committed to the process.”
Another attendee, Joel Rena, told GLW: “Even though Chavez is dead, we are united.”
“Chavez was the teacher of Maduro ... [he] is very intelligent, and revolutionary. The people will vote for Maduro.”