The election to replace President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is expected in mid-April, sources told Reuters Saturday, as acting President Nicolas Maduro tries to benefit from the national outpouring of grief. (See Update, below.)
Multiple sources from the opposition and election board said April 14 was the probable date, though some were pushing for the symbolic April 13 anniversary of Chavez's return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup. An official announcement is expected later Saturday.
Venezuelans continued filing by their leader’s coffin Saturday, a day after a funeral attended by every Latin American leader but practically boycotted by the U.S. government.
Maduro, a physically imposing former union leader who served as foreign minister and vice president under Chavez, who died Tuesday, has vowed to keep his socialist revolution alive.
He is expected to face opposition leader Henrique Capriles, 40, the centrist governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in a vote last October.
Opinion polls have shown Maduro as the likely winner, but Chavez's opponents were impatient and said they wanted to be given a chance to end Chavismo at the voting booth.
Maduro was sworn in as acting president in Congress after the Chavez funeral Friday and handed the red, yellow and blue presidential sash.
"I asked (the election authority) to comply with legal and constitutional obligations and immediately call elections," Maduro, 50, told Congress.
He delivered a militant speech that denounced 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 Associated Press reported.
The Supreme Court had earlier ruled that Maduro did not need to step down in order to campaign, but the move was denounced by opponents as a violation of the constitution and a "fraud."
As Maduro spoke in Congress, residents of some wealthy neighborhoods of Caracas banged pots and pans in a traditional form of protest.
The opposition had accused the government of trampling on the constitution during its handling of Chavez's battle with cancer, and is furious that Maduro was allowed to take on the job of caretaker president while he campaigns for the job.
"This transgression is unprecedented in the history of the republic," opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado said on Twitter.
Capriles called it an abuse of power.
"To become president, the people have to elect you," he said Friday. "No one elected Nicolas president."
"Everything that happened yesterday [the funeral and Maduro's speech] are outward signs of a fascistic aesthetic, complete with armbands," Vicente González de la Vega, a professor of law at Caracas' Universidad Metropolitana, told the AP. "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 nationalistic rhetoric and the implication a vote against Maduro was subversive. Capriles, too, has used emotionally charged language in his public comments. On Friday he denounced Maduro as a shameless liar who had not been elected by the people, and condescendingly referred to him as "boy."
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, adding that there was a risk to Maduro if his belligerent style pushes the opposition to boycott the vote.
"Maduro needs more than ever to have an election with the participation of the opposition, because he needs legitimacy," she said.
UPDATE: The National Electoral Council of Venezuela has confirmed the country's presidential election will be conducted April 14, according to the Associated Press and other media outlets.