CARACAS — Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles announced Sunday that he will run in elections to replace Hugo Chavez, setting up a make-or-break encounter against the dead president’s hand-picked successor, a close adviser to the candidate says.
“My fight is not to be president, my fight is for Venezuela to move forward,” Capriles said in a televised address. He said the members of the ruling party “are the ones who became sick by power. You fear losing it.”
Venezuela’s election commission has set April 14 as the date of the vote, with formal campaigning to start just 12 days earlier.
Oswaldo Ramirez, a political consultant to Capriles, said the 40-year-old opposition leader will demand that officials extend the campaign period by moving up the start date by more than a week, and that acting president Nicolas Maduro not be allowed to abuse state resources to boost his chances during the campaign.
Maduro has already announced his intention to run as the candidate of Chavez’s United Socialist Party. On Sunday he picked up the support of Venezuela’s small Communist Party as well.
In a speech accepting the party’s nomination, Maduro insisted he was running for president out of loyalty to Chavez, not vanity or personal ambition, and called on the people to support him.
‘‘I am not Chavez,’’ Maduro said, wearing a simple red shirt. ‘‘In terms of intelligence, charisma, historical force, or capacity to lead. . . . But I am a Chavista and I live and die for him.’’
Capriles faced a stark choice in deciding whether to compete in the vote, which most analysts say he is likely to lose amid a frenzy of sympathy and mourning for the dead president.
Some say a second defeat for Capriles just six months after he lost last year’s presidential vote to Chavez could derail his political career. If he waits, a Chavista government led by Maduro might prove inept and give him a better shot down the road.
Analysts predict the next five weeks will increase the nasty, heated rhetoric that began even before Chavez’s death Tuesday after a nearly two-year fight with cancer.
Maduro, who was named Chavez’s vice president after the October election, was sworn in as the oil-rich country’s acting leader Friday night. He is expected to file election papers on Monday.
Opposition critics have called Maduro’s ascension unconstitutional, noting the charter designates the National Assembly president as acting leader if a president-elect cannot be sworn in.
On the streets of Caracas on Sunday, opinion was as divided as always in a country that became dramatically more polarized during Chavez’s 14-year rule.
‘‘It’s not fair,’’ said Jose Mendez, a 54-year-old businessman of the choice the opposition leader faces. Maduro “has an advantage, because of everything they have done since Chavez’s death, all the sentiment they’ve created. . . . But the guy has nothing. He can’t hold a candle to Chavez.’’
But Ramon Romero said the opposition was just making excuses, and had no chance of victory in any case.
‘‘Now their odds are even worse,’’ said the 64-year-old waiter and staunch Chavez supporter. ‘‘They don’t care about anyone, and [the voters] have been lifted out of darkness.’’
David Smilde, an analyst with the US-based Washington Office on Latin America, said the opposition needs to run a candidate in the presidential election even though he believes it will almost certainly lose.
That would give the opposition an opportunity to clearly articulate its platform and vision.