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As Hugo Chavez recovers in a military hospital, the Venezuelan opposition is huddling to pick a unity candidate in case the ailing president is unable to govern and a snap election is called.
Chavez returned to Caracas eight days ago after two months of cancer treatment in Cuba, but he has remained out of sight, fueling speculation about his health and political future.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro insisted Tuesday that Chavez, 58, remained firmly in charge, giving orders to "loyal" subordinates to maintain the country's economic, political and social life.
But after taking several beatings from Chavez at the ballot box for the past 14 years, the opposition wants to avoid being caught off guard, since elections would have to be called within 30 days if the president is incapacitated.
"The signals are very clear that elections are coming at least in 2013," Leopoldo Lopez, national coordinator of the Voluntad Popular party, part of the opposition MUD coalition, told reporters.
He said the opposition has begun discussions to pick a candidate.
For his part, Henrique Capriles, the Miranda state governor who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, vowed that the opposition was ready to "face any scenario."
Capriles was picked by an alliance of some 20 opposition parties in an unprecedented primary for last year's election, making him a favorite to represent them again in a new vote.
"The difference between Capriles and the other opposition hopefuls is simply enormous," Luis Vicente Leon, director of the polling firm Datanalisis, wrote on Twitter.
Although Chavez beat Capriles by 11 points, the 40-year-old politician gave the opposition its best score ever against the leftist leader, with 44 percent of the vote.
Before flying to Cuba for a fourth round of cancer surgery on December 10, Chavez named Maduro as his political heir and urged Venezuelans to vote for him if elections become necessary.
Last week, a survey by the polling firm Hinterlaces found that Maduro would beat Capriles by 14 points in an election, though polls in Venezuela are notorious for their diverging results.
Maduro derided Capriles on Tuesday, calling him a "prince of the parasitic bourgeoisie" who is "not recognized as the chief or leader of the opposition" and was given "the beating of the century" by Chavez.
"Now they are killing themselves for a supposed presidential candidate. They are all pre-candidates. 'Majunche' must be ashamed," he said, using a slang word meaning "little thing" that Chavez had employed against Capriles.
But Maduro insisted that Chavez was using his presidential powers from his hospital room, with "a team of men and women who are loyal, around him, with a knee on the ground."
The government said last Thursday that Chavez was still suffering from a respiratory infection, but Maduro said the president had held a five-hour meeting with aides the next day, communicating by writing.
The opposition voiced doubts about the meeting, asking why there were no pictures of it.
Opposition officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that their candidate will be picked by consensus among the main MUD coalition parties because there was no time to hold a primary.
But some opposition figures say the coalition is not ready to choose a candidate yet and that the discussions are centered on the electoral strategy.
"We are not there yet," said MUD executive secretary Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, who ruled out being a candidate even though his name has been mentioned. "The name is always much easier to choose."
But Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, leader of the Alianza Bravo Pueblo party, said the coalition began the process of choosing a presidential candidate on Sunday.
"I don't think it's going to be a very quick decision," a source from Capriles's Justice First party told AFP.
Henry Ramos Allup, secretary general of the Democratic Action party, wrote in a column that "it is very clear that there is not just one but many hopefuls to consider."
"Nobody must consider himself anointed or indispensable," said Ramos Allup, whose party was one of the old parties that shared power in the 40 years before Chavez came to power.