President Hugo Chávez's death leaves Venezuela bitterly divided between Chavistas who adored the populist and those who hated him, plunging the oil-rich South American nation into an uncertain future.
Vice President Nicolás Maduro has been expected to become president until elections are called within 30 days, since Venezuelan law calls for the vice president to serve as interim president if a sitting president dies within the first four years of his six-year term.
But it wasn't clear that would happen. Mr. Chavez was never formally sworn in after his term officially started on Jan. 10—leading to speculation that the post would go a rival, Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the National Assembly who was a military officer along with Mr. Chávez.
A pro-Chávez assemblyman, Fernando Soto Rojas, told state-backed TeleSur television later Tuesday that Mr. Cabello should be named interim president and that Mr. Maduro should be the party's candidate for president.
"After that, without a doubt, we'll have an electoral process where we know what we have to do," Mr. Rojas said.
Should such a vote arise, Mr. Maduro—who was the country's foreign minister for seven years and helped to cultivate closer relations with nations opposed to U.S. interests like Iran—would likely face off against Henrique Capriles, an opposition governor who was defeated soundly by Mr. Chávez in October's presidential election.
"The only thing holding Chavismo together was Chávez, and the only thing holding the opposition together was their opposition to Chávez," said Gil Merkx, a Latin America specialist at Duke University. "So there will be enormous disarray on both sides."
A big question for Venezuela will be whether Mr. Chávez's successor, whoever that may be, will try to uphold his revolution and legacy or set about trying to dismantle much of it.
Mr. Maduro will start the election race as a narrow favorite and will likely benefit from the sympathy vote for the late Mr. Chávez, pollsters say. "He is a substitute selected by Chávez and that has an impact," said Luís Vicente León, a local pollster.
With Mr. Chávez's health worsening recently, state television filled the airwaves with round-the-clock video montages and programs seeking to immortalize the charismatic leader's connection with the country's poor. Shots were shown of a smiling Mr. Chávez embracing women and children and waving to large crowds of red-clad supporters. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Chávez told his disciples that they would carry on his spirit and legacy.
His name has been invoked at virtually all state activities and government officials openly called him a father of the nation.
"Chávez is the child, the woman; Chávez is each and every one of us," Mr. Maduro said at a recent ceremony celebrating the opening of a new cable-car, public transit system that shuttles along Caracas's hillside slums.
The election's winner will inherit an economy that has grown quickly over the past decade thanks largely to high oil prices and ramped up government spending, but which faces strains that could spell growing trouble in months and years to come.
Even if Mr. Capriles pulls off the upset, Mr. Chávez's legacy will leave the opposition little room to maneuver when it comes to cutting back on the late president's popular spending programs.
Mr. Capriles has promised to carve out a much bigger role for the private sector in the country's economy, including in the oil industry.
But he also has promised to keep the spending programs and even take a few additional steps, such as raising the minimum wage by 20%.
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