Venezuela eyes first post-Chavez election

Venezuela marched Saturday toward bitter elections to succeed Hugo Chavez after his political heir took power in a move disputed by the opposition following the leftist leader's death.

The "most likely" date for the election is April 14, a source in the national electoral council told AFP before the panel was due to meet to make a decision.

The meeting comes one day after Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, was sworn in as acting leader in a ceremony largely boycotted by the opposition, branding the move unconstitutional.

The political hostilities began just hours after Venezuela and more than 30 foreign leaders gave Chavez a rousing state funeral, with Maduro delivering a fiery eulogy promising to be loyal to his fallen leader "beyond death."

Chavez lost his battle to cancer on Tuesday at the age of 58, leaving behind a divided country after a 14-year presidency whose oil-funded socialist policies delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy.

The firebrand leftist leader named Maduro to succeed him before leaving for Cuba in December for a new round of cancer surgery, urging Venezuelans to vote for the 50-year-old if he died.

Maduro has emulated his mentor's combative style ever since, displaying the same fire as he addressed the National Assembly after being inaugurated, railing against capitalism and the opposition.

The former vice president vowed "absolute loyalty" to Chavez before donning the presidential sash, his voice cracking as he declared: "Sorry for our pain and tears, but this presidency belongs to our comandante."

He urged the electoral council to "immediately" call an election and stated: "From here we go to the street to build the strength that gives continuity of this socialist revolution of the 21st century."

Before he was sworn in, his most likely challenger, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, denounced the inauguration as a "constitutional fraud" and abuse of power by the government.

"Nicolas, nobody elected you president. The people didn't vote for you, kid," said Capriles, 40, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election. He argued that the caretaker president cannot run for office under the constitution.

Maduro, meanwhile, resumed business as usual, holding talks with a high-level Chinese delegation during which both sides vowed to deepen relations.

Chavez beat Capriles by 11 points, but the Miranda state governor gave the opposition its best result ever against the former paratrooper, garnering 44 percent, or 6.5 million, of ballots.

A recent survey by pollsters Hinterlaces gave Maduro a 14-point advantage over Capriles, though the opposition leader has questioned the firm's reliability in the past.

"The next president will have huge challenges: Earning the respect of the impoverished population, who blindly believe in Chavez, in a divided country," said Central University of Venezuela professor Agustin Blanco.

Venezuela has given Chavez an extended farewell, with hundreds of thousands of people swarming the streets of Caracas on Wednesday, cheering and crying as his coffin was slowly taken to a military academy.

Chavez, who forged a near-mystical bond with the country's once-neglected poor, has been lying in state at the academy since then and throngs have filed past his half-open casket nonstop.

Many of his followers say they will follow their leader's wishes and vote for Maduro, even though some say they still are getting to know him and that the former bus driver and union activist lacks Chavez's charisma.

"Chavismo continues. It's an ideology already. Now we will continue with Madurismo. It's Chavismo continuing through Maduro," said Omaira Salazar, 64, one of the countless people waiting in line to see Chavez.

Chavez's body will lie in state until Friday and officials said it will be embalmed and preserved "like Lenin" to rest in a glass casket in the military barracks where he plotted a failed coup in 1992.

At his lavish state funeral, foreign leaders and celebrities paying their last respects to the man who built a leftist bloc in Latin America to counter US influence in the region.

The guests ranged from Cuban leader Raul Castro, his closest ally, to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn and US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

The service even brought Ahmadinejad and Belarussia's veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko to tears as the two, sitting next to each other, wiped away tears as a band played one of Chavez's favorite sentimental songs.

The ceremony was interrupted a few times by chants of "Chavez lives, the struggle goes on!"