CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The date of elections to replace Hugo Chavez is set, and the late president's hand-picked successor will be the official party candidate. But one big question remains: Who will be his opponent?
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles is set to announce his intentions late Sunday in what could be the most important decision of his political life. He faces a stark choice: run in the April 14 vote many believe he is sure to lose amid a frenzy of sympathy and mourning for the dead president, or stay on the sidelines and risk his leadership of the opposition.
Several opposition sources interviewed by The Associated Press refused to speculate ahead of the announcement, and political analysts were split.
"He will put himself forward," said Oswaldo Ramirez, a political consultant at ORC Consultores, which sometimes advises Capriles. "History is giving Capriles Radonski an important role."
Ramirez said the 40-year-old state governor would demand that the government extend the campaign period, which is not set to begin until April 2, and not abuse state resources to boost its chances during the vote.
"I don't think there is any doubt that the opposition will participate and that their candidate will be Capriles," agreed Luis Vicente Leon, the head of the polling firm Datanalisis. Leon said he saw the opposition as clear underdogs in the vote, but would not rule out an upset.
Others were not so sure what the opposition might do.
Some say a second defeat for Capriles just six months after he lost last year's presidential vote to Chavez could derail his political career. If he waits, a Chavista government led by Nicolas Maduro, the acting president, might prove inept and give him a better shot down the road.
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." A spokesman said Capriles would make an announcement in the early evening.
Whoever the opposition runs, analysts predict the next five weeks will increase the nasty, heated rhetoric that began even before Chavez's death Tuesday after a nearly two-year fight with cancer.
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 has made clear he will be the ruling party candidate. He is expected to file election papers on Monday
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."
On the streets of Caracas on Sunday, opinion was as divided as always in a country that became dramatically more polarized during Chavez's 14-year rule.
"It's not fair," said Jose Mendez, a 54-year-old businessman of the choice the opposition leader faces. "(Maduro) has an advantage, because of everything they have done since Chavez's death, all the sentiment they've created ... But the guy has nothing. He can't hold a candle to Chavez."
But Ramon Romero said the opposition was just making excuses, and had no chance of victory in any case.
"Now their odds are even worse," said the 64-year-old waiter and staunch Chavez supporter. "They don't care about anyone, and we (the voters) have been lifted out of darkness."
There was no indication that the opposition would sit out the vote altogether. 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.
If Capriles does stay out, analysts say, 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 them the opportunity to clearly articulate a platform and vision without damaging its top star. Capriles garnered 44 percent of October's votes, which was the most anyone had won against Chavez since he took office.
"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.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak, Paul Haven, Jorge Rueda and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.