Chavez successor seen as 'politically attractive' by analysts
For 10-1/2 years, Venezuelans have lived with a political system known as "chavismo" - part populist politics, part personality cult - under socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
But as the leftist president confronts yet another round in his long-running battle with cancer, Venezuelans now face the prospect of a new brand of chavismo, one led by Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro.
Chavez on Saturday revealed that doctors he consulted in Cuba found new malignant cancer cells in the same area where the disease was first diagnosed last year. In announcing his imminent departure to Cuba for treatment, Chavez gave Venezuelans a hint of the gravity of this most recent relapse, urging his compatriots to "choose Maduro as president" if his illness renders him unable to lead the nation.
Maduro, Venezuela's foreign minister for the past six years, in October assumed the additional post of vice-president, after Chavez was re-elected for a third term.
But with his plea late on Saturday that Venezuelans elect Maduro to succeed him, Chavez "began the process of transition" to his successor, said Datanalisis institute president Luis Vicente Leon.
Chavez's endorsement appears to ensure that the party machinery will be behind Maduro.
Long-time observers have praised Maduro for his low-key style and his skill at forging common ground between opposing factions in the ruling coalition.
"He's not verbally loud," said political scientist Ricardo Sucre. "He's one of those people who has the personality of a foreign diplomat, always open to dialogue."
A similar opinion was voiced by historian Margarita Lopez Maya, who said he was especially valued for his "loyalty" to the ailing president.
Like his mentor, Maduro has humble roots. He is a former bus driver who began his political career in the labour movement and pursued a career in the moderate wing of Chavez's political circle.
"Maduro is a popular and politically attractive figure because he belongs to the moderate wing, and has not been repudiated as other figures within chavismo have been," said Leon.
He added that Maduro had the additional gifts of being a gifted speaker and, at age 50, a relatively young man.
In recent months, during Chavez's convalescence, Maduro quietly assumed higher-profile tasks, including negotiations with China and Russia.
Under the Venezuelan constitution, if a new president is incapacitated before inauguration - scheduled for January 10 - fresh elections must be called in 30 days. The parliamentary speaker must then take charge until a new president is elected.