As Chavez recovers, Venezuela appears in campaign mode

Venezuelan officials say that President Hugo Chavez remains in charge in his hospital room, but the opposition and the government look increasingly like two sides on a campaign trail.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor, is a fixture on state-run television, using public events to lambast the opposition and its most likely presidential hopeful, Henrique Capriles.

Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, has responded in kind and challenged Maduro to face him at the ballot box, noting that he defeated two former vice presidents in gubernatorial elections.

An alliance of parties, meanwhile, is meeting behind closed door to strategize for an election and name a unity candidate.

On the streets of Caracas, many Venezuelans wonder if the socialist leader is dead, alive or healthy enough to run things, but polls show most are convinced that he will recover and return to power.

"I see the governing party much more in a campaign than the opposition," said Mariana Bacalao, political communications professor at Central University of Venezuela.

"The ruling party has been gaining time and for that reason we don't have more transparency about the health of Chavez, if he will return or if he can or cannot govern," she told AFP.

Chavez has not come out in public since he flew to Cuba on December 10 to undergo his fourth round of cancer surgery in 18 months. Only four photos were released on February 15, showing him smiling with his two daughters.

No images have been shown since he checked into a military hospital in Caracas on February 18. The opposition says the government is lying about Chavez's health.

An election must be held within 30 days if the president is deemed unfit to resume his duties. Chavez himself told Venezuelans to vote for Maduro if he was unable to return.

But the government has insisted that Chavez, who has been battling cancer since June 2011, is still in charge and even held a five-hour meeting in his hospital room.

Maduro revealed for the first time on Friday that Chavez began chemotherapy in January and decided to continue his treatment in Caracas.

Maduro, a broad-shouldered, former bus driver and union activist with a thick moustache, is appearing frequently on state-run television, adopting Chavez's favorite phrases, capping speeches with "viva la revolucion!"

He has mocked the opposition, saying its leaders were all "pre-candidates," but he has focused his attacks on Capriles, calling him the "prince of the parasitic bourgeoisie" and "majunche," Venezuelan slang meaning "little thing" that Chavez used against his rival during last year's campaign.

The campaign-styled mudslinging was returned by Capriles via Twitter.

"Maduro was never a worker, he has never worked, he is a professional deck chair, lazy, slacker! Everyone who knows him knows that he's like that," the 40-year-old Miranda state governor wrote.

A poll by Hinterlaces, a firm Capriles considers not credible, released a poll last week showing that Maduro would defeat his rival 50-36 percent if an election were to take place. Chavez defeated Capriles by 11 points in October.

The opposition put behind its historic rivalries aside last year to pick Capriles as its candidate in an unprecedented primary last year. But it is meeting in private this time to choose a candidate by consensus, since an internal election would take too long.

Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Datanalisis polling firm, said Capriles is the opposition's most likely choice since polls show that almost three-quarters of the population identify him as its "natural candidate."

"They don't need consensus. What they need is unity in the campaign," he told AFP.

He said Maduro is on a different king of campaign to make himself known across the country, whether there is an election or not, adopting a radical Chavez-like speech "to fill the void" and build his own leadership.

"Even though the political class is in campaign mode, 57 percent of the population believes that (Chavez) will recover," Leon said.

In Plaza Bolivar square, a meeting point for Chavistas, a dozen people sat under a red tent on Friday, watching Maduro speak on the official VTV channel.

They were all convinced Chavez would come back, but if he had to step aside, they knew who they would vote for.

"If there are elections, no problem, because there is Maduro," said Victor Camillo, 67, a retired teacher.