The last wish of Hugo Chavez was to have Nicolas Maduro take his place as president. Many Venezuelans interpreted that as an order to vote for him at the polls. Maduro now has won a narrow victory over Henrique Capriles.
It was likely one of Nicolas Maduro's most difficult duties. The imposing Maduro fought back tears and his deep voice wavered as he announced to Venezuela and the world on March 5, 2013, the news that his political father-figure Hugo Chavez had died. During the mourning procession that accompanied Chavez's body through the streets of the capital Caracas to the military academy where he laid in state, Maduro walked alongside the coffin of his "Comandante" who had lost his battle with cancer.
The message of the pictures was clear: I'm the man who was closest to Chavez, the legitimate successor and the keeper of his legacy. Or, as Maduro put it himself, "I'm the son of Hugo Chavez. I will fulfill his biggest dream and create a socialist fatherland."
Maduro (far left) is joined at Chavez's coffin by Brazil's ex-president Lula, his succesor Rousseff, and Chavez's daughter Rosa Virginia
That is certainly in the spirit of the deceased founder of Venezuela's 'Bolivarian Revolution.' When he was still alive, Chavez appointed Maduro to the vice presidency. If he was unable to continue, the terminally ill Chavez said before his last cancer treatment, then Venezuelans should elect Maduro as their next president.
It looks as if Chavez's wish will be granted. Venezuelan pollsters have predicted a convincing victory for Maduro in Sunday's (14.04.2013) presidential elections. Depending on the survey, Maduro has between a 10 and 20 percent lead over the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles.
A shrill campaign
The tone of the campaign is pretty raw. Like his role model Chavez, Maduro polemicizes against his opponent, describing Capriles as "miserable," and "a man with a fascist face." Maduro even accuses the opposition of conspiring to kill him. The government and opposition make mutual accusations, resorting to mud-slinging to discredit the other.
The government has turned the election into a vote on the Chavez legacy. It knows, says political scientist John Magdaleno, that Maduro doesn't have the same charisma as the eloquent Chavez.
"As a political leader in public he does not have a steady position," he says, "so he doesn't have a choice other than to rely on Chavez's image."
According to Günther Maihold, a Latin America expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, it is in effect Chavez himself who is running again on Sunday, not Maduro, because Maduro is copying the style and methods of his former boss.
Capriles is trying to fill the void. At the heart of his campaign is the high criminality in the cities. He has also called attention to skyrocketing inflation and crumbling infrastructure.
The 40-year-old Capriles has also affirmed he would continue the successful social programs of the Chavez regime, and for good reason: Heinz Dieterich, a former Chavez adviser, says the people want continuity.
"People want to keep the social programs," he said, and that's why the majority will vote for Maduro.
From bus driver to president
Maduro has worked his way up in life. The 50-year-old was a bus driver and active union member before he turned to politics. With his wife, Cilia Flores, he was a companion to the late Chavez for decades.
When Chavez failed in a military coup to seize power in 1992, Flores defended him. Later, Flores and Maduro fought to get Chavez released early.
The pair also founded the political group, Movimiento Quinta Republica, with Chavez, and in 1998, the movement won elections. Chavez became president, Maduro a lawmaker and speaker of parliament. In 2006, Maduro was promoted to the post of foreign minister, and in 2012 he became vice president.
Should Maduro become president, there are a number of problems he will need to address: extreme violence in the cities, corruption and cronyism in the public sector, high inflation, and sinking income from the country's oil business. The next president, according to Günther Maihold, will have some tough calls to make.
"The program of state-controlled economics, the massive mentality of subventions, the social policies – none of that is affordable any more," Maihold said.
And, without Chavez, Maduro will be tasked with keeping the party together.
"[He] is certainly the best person for it," said Maihold, "but I have my doubts that he has the intellectual and political format to develop a new perspective for Chavism."
After the election, the country of 30 million people will be deeply divided between glowing supporters and bitter enemies of Chavism.