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Venezuela's Maduro bids to be new ‘Christ of the poor’ with help from ‘Hand of God’

Chavez’s chosen heir enlists support of Maradona ahead of tomorrow’s presidential election in Venezuela

There will be two names on the ballot papers when Venezuelans go to the polls this Sunday, but it is a third that lingers on voters’ lips as they prepare to choose their next president: Hugo Chavez.

The charismatic and controversial socialist leader whose death on 5 March precipitated the bitter emergency election campaign of the past few weeks will cast a long shadow over whichever man succeeds him.

That man is likely to be the country’s acting President and Chavez’s anointed heir, 50-year-old Nicolas Maduro, who, with his bellicose rhetoric and questionable campaign style, is expected to trounce the opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, this weekend. Opinion polls have kept the socialist candidate more than 10 percentage points ahead of his rival throughout the brief campaign, which came to a close on Thursday with a pair of competing rallies.

While Capriles addressed a large crowd in the north-western city of Acarigua, in the capital, Caracas, Maduro was joined onstage yesterday – the last day of campaigning –  in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters by the Argentinian former football star Diego Maradona, and by Chavez’s brother, Adan.

“Truly, Chavez was the Christ of the poor”, Maduro declared during his speech, ending 10 intense days of electioneering in each of Venezuela’s 24 states. Maduro has maintained his poll lead in large part by describing himself as “Chavez’s son”, and by clinging relentlessly to the legacy of his late mentor.

The website MaduroDice.com (“Maduro Says”) counts the number of times the socialist candidate has mentioned Chavez since his death from cancer brought an end to his 14-year rule. Averaging over 200 times per day, Maduro’s tally currently stands at over 6,500. Reacting to the statistic on state television, the acting president joked, “When I heard how many times I had said our leader’s name I felt embarrassed; I thought, ‘That’s very little!’”

Maduro has also been at pains to ape his predecessor’s political style in an effort to reassure his inherited Chavista support base of his ability to emulate the charismatic leadership it craves. A bus driver and union leader prior to his political career, Maduro has nonetheless taken to dressing in the late president’s signature military fatigues, which marked out Chavez as a former paratrooper.

Though considered a somewhat lesser orator than Chavez, Maduro has also inherited his populist predecessor’s habit of making lengthy, unpredictable speeches. On the campaign trail, he has mocked his opponent mercilessly, recently leading his supporters in the ‘Capriles Dance’: a jittery, shoulder-wobbling action, comical to the salsa-keen nation.

Over the past six weeks, Venezuela has witnessed the socialist candidate calling his opponents “the heirs of Hitler”, stating that anyone that voted against him would be “cursed”, and openly requesting that US President Barack Obama call off alleged plans “to assassinate my opponent and cause chaos”. Maduro, who has routinely criticised the US during his campaign, even accused the CIA of deliberately causing Chavez’s fatal illness.

“Maduro’s potential victory is entirely inherited from the legacy and endorsement of Chavez”, said Luis Vicente Leon, head of Caracas polling firm Datanalisis, “he’s desperately trying to hide behind the image of the late president”.

Yet the issue for Venezuela now is not so much whom it elects, but what manner of leader Maduro will prove to be once he steps out from beneath the Chavez banner. The acting president has promised to spread his mentor’s vision of “21st century socialism”, but while Chavez may have ensured that his protégé will succeed him, Venezuela’s next premier will not be able to depend solely on the late leader’s legacy. And before Maduro considers taking his predecessor’s place on the world stage, he will have to deal with several pressing domestic issues.

Poverty decreased significantly under Chavez, and the UN recently named Venezuela the most equal nation in Latin America. Thanks to a flood of petrodollars, the government was able to offer the poor free healthcare and improved education programmes. Yet the late President also leaves behind a country with the highest inflation rate in the Americas, an over-valued and restricted currency which discourages international investment, and crime rates that see more annual homicides than the United States and western Europe combined.

Despite boasting the world’s largest oil reserves, the country’s coffers are far from overflowing. Venezuela’s borrowing amounts to 23 per cent of China’s overseas loans ($42.5 billion), entirely collateralized by its oil resources. And as his government bankrolls Cuban socialism, with 100,000 barrels of the country’s petrol going to Cuba annually – and at vastly subsidized rates – the new president may find the lack of funds threatening to his authority.

Whether or not Maduro will continue to be so combative once the election is over remains to be seen. Yet the focus on the prize may be distracting the socialist candidate from the realities of the task ahead of him. “Maduro has to deliver more than what was expected of Chavez in order to calm the storm”, said Mr Leon, whose polling firm has been one of the most accurate in Caracas in recent months, “and he’ll have to prove himself, he can’t play the identity theft card forever”.

In his final speech, meanwhile, Capriles pledged to end official corruption and revive the national economy within a year, though he would also be sure to maintain the popular social programmes that made Chavez so beloved. Capriles is familiar with Venezuela’s bumptious election style: the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state ran for president against an ailing Chavez in October 2012. He is also accustomed to losing: though closer than any previous opposition candidate to beating Chavez at the ballot box, he still failed to come within 10 per centage points of the absent incumbent. Tomorrow he will be running against Chavez’s memory, and he is likely to lose again.

Click here to see more photos of both presidential candidates during their campaign rally