CARACAS, Venezuela – Opposition leader Henrique Capriles must make what could be the most important decision of his political life, now that Venezuela's elections commission has called an April 14 vote to pick a successor to the late Hugo Chavez.
The 40-year-old state governor is expected to announce on Sunday whether he will run against Chavez's hand-picked successor, who's a heavy favorite amid lingering sympathy for the charismatic president.
The stakes are high: A defeat for Capriles just six months after he lost the presidential vote to Chavez would likely finish his political career. If he waits, a Chavista government might prove inept and give him a better shot in a later election.
On a personal Twitter page that bore all the rah-rah adornments of a campaign site, Capriles wrote Saturday afternoon: "I am analyzing the declaration of the (electoral commission setting the date) and in the next hours I will talk to the country about my decision."
Whoever the opposition runs, analysts say the election is the government's to lose. They also predict the next five weeks will up the nasty, heated rhetoric that began even before Chavez's death Tuesday after a nearly two-year fight with cancer.
Nicolas Maduro, who was named Chavez's vice president after the October election, was sworn in as this oil-rich country's acting leader Friday night and is expected to be the ruling party candidate. Opposition critics have called Maduro's ascension unconstitutional, noting the charter designates the National Assembly president as acting leader if a president-elect cannot be sworn in.
Angel Alvarez, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela, said Capriles is well aware that "the dice are loaded in favor of the government's candidate."
That means sitting out the race would make sense for Capriles, said David Smilde, an analyst with the U.S.-based think tank the Washington Office on Latin America.
"If he says he doesn't want to run I could totally understand that," Smilde said. "He is likely going to lose and if he loses this election he's probably going to be done."
If Capriles stays out, the opposition would be wise to run fresher faces such as Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledesma or Henry Falcone, governor of Lara state and one of just three opposition governors.
That would give the opposition an opportunity to clearly articulate its platform and vision without damaging its top star. Capriles garnered 44 percent of October's votes, which was the most anyone had ever won against Chavez.
"Really what this campaign would be about is allowing the opposition to put themselves in position for the future, to show that they have some ideas for the country," Smilde said.
The government so far has taken advantage of its incumbency and often acted above the law.
Maduro has enjoyed the explicit support of top military brass even though the constitution prohibits the armed forces from getting involved in politics. Even the April 14 election date set Saturday by the elections council violated requirements that the election be held within 30 days of Chavez's March 5 death.
The government also hasn't been shy about using its top political weapon — Chavez's epic persona and his socialist-leaning transformation of Venezuela.
Supporters have compared the former paratrooper to Jesus Christ and early 19th century Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar, and the government says his body will be embalmed and put on eternal display at a military museum on a hill overlooking the capital.
Edith Palmeira, a 47-year-old Caracas resident, said Saturday that she would vote for Maduro, but was clear that her allegiance was based purely on her love of Chavez.
"Imitations are never as good as the original," Palmeira said. "But I think he must have grown as a person during so much time at the president's side. He must have learned to be a president."
Elvira Orozco, a 31-year-old business owner, said she planned to sit out the vote to protest Maduro's swearing-in.
"Here, they violate the constitution and no authority says anything," Orozco said.
Venezuela's deep political divide may be widening. Half the country remains in a near frenzy of adulation and mourning. The other half feels politically targeted.
"It is the cult of the adored leader, an escape from reality," said Vicente Gonzalez de la Vega, a law professor at Caracas' Metropolitan University. "They are trying to impose on the rest of the country a new pagan religion."
He said the ruling party was playing with fire with its strong nationalistic rhetoric by implying a vote against Maduro was somehow subversive.
Capriles, too, has heated up his speeches. On Friday he called Maduro a shameless liar, and condescendingly referred to him as "boy."
Opposition figures express concern about the election's fairness, especially given senior military officials' public vows of allegiance to Chavez.
There is no indication, though, that the opposition would sit out the vote.
A boycott of 2005 legislative elections was widely seen as disastrous for the opposition. In possession of every single seat, Chavez's camp was able to extend its hold on government, including stacking the Supreme Court with loyalists.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak, Paul Haven, Jorge Rueda and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.