Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said supporters… (Fernando Llano / Associated…)
CARACAS, Venezuela — Interim President Nicolas Maduro on Monday raised the curtain on Venezuela's abbreviated campaign to elect a successor to Hugo Chavez, lavishly praising the late leader during a televised address but promising to tackle escalating crime, perhaps Chavez's darkest legacy.
The 50-year-old Maduro, a former bus driver and socialist union leader, is heavily favored to beat his challenger, Gov. Henrique Capriles of Miranda state, in the April 14 election to fill out Chavez's six-year term.
The snap election was called after Chavez died of cancer March 5. Maduro, who had been vice president and foreign minister under Chavez, was sworn in as interim president March 8. Campaigning has been limited to Tuesday through April 11.
Recent polls give Maduro leads ranging from 8 to 20 percentage points, reflecting popular sympathy for Chavez, who had designated Maduro as his political heir. Maduro also reaps the goodwill generated by Chavez's social welfare programs, which are highly popular with Venezuela's poor.
In recent days, Maduro has referred to Chavez as "Christ the redeemer of the poor" and to himself as his apostle.
But Maduro is also inheriting rampant violent crime that has quadrupled since 1999, when Chavez took power. Crime is voters' top concern, according to analysts, and could be Maduro's electoral Achilles' heel. On Monday, he announced an initiative called "Movement for Peace and Life" to combat violence.
"You all have the right to life," Maduro said in his speech, broadcast from an adult school in Caracas' Catia slum. "Join us to end violence and kidnapping.... Any of these victims could be your sisters, your parents."
He invoked the so-called cadena law that requires all TV and radio stations to carry his speech.
Maduro may have been responding to news reports Monday of a 7% increase in violent deaths handled by the city morgue over the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2012. About two-thirds of the bodies brought there typically are murder victims, said El Universal newspaper.
The government has not released official crime statistics since 2004.
Meanwhile, Capriles, 40, who lost to Chavez in October by 10 percentage points, announced at a news conference Monday that supporters would hold candlelight marches Tuesday night in 19 states to demand that the government address rising crime.
Marchers "will make us feel the dream our nation has of being able to walk through the streets after dark," Capriles said. "Public spaces should belong to the citizens."
Chavez had drawn heavy criticism for failing to direct sufficient government resources to tackling crime during his presidency. On various occasions, he had either refused to acknowledge it or, as Maduro did Monday, blamed it on capitalism.
Capriles also criticized Maduro's use of the cadena as an unfair campaign advantage that the National Electoral Commission should prohibit.
"We're not asking for anything that isn't stipulated" by Venezuelan law, Capriles said. "We believe that all should have the same rights."
Special correspondents Mogollon reported from Caracas and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.