CARACAS President Hugo Chavez returned home to Venezuela on Thursday after a first session of radiation treatment in Cuba that he hopes will cure his cancer and allow him to win a new six-year term in October.
The 57-year-old socialist leader has said he will be flying back and forth to Havana over the coming weeks as he undergoes therapy, removing himself from the political stage just as his election rival gears up his campaign.
Very little is known about Chavez's condition - he has had three cancer operations in less than a year - so doubts remain about the future of the man who has dominated politics in South America's biggest oil exporter for the last 13 years.
"It's a hard battle ... I'm good and will continue to be good. I've taken the treatment very well, thanks to God," he said during an hour-long pre-dawn speech broadcast on state TV from the Miraflores presidential palace.
The opposition has demanded the president appoint a temporary leader to run the government during his absences in Cuba, something that Chavez has repeatedly rejected.
"I may have reduced my speed, but the government has accelerated ... there is no power vacuum," he said on Thursday.
He said he expected to return to Cuba on Saturday to resume the radiation treatment, and to stay there for four more days.
The president started the radiation therapy last Saturday, saying he would undergo one session a day for five consecutive days, then fly home to rest for a couple of days. Overall, Chavez has said, the treatment should last four or five weeks.
He previously underwent four sessions of chemotherapy that caused him to lose his hair. It has since has grown back.
WEEKS OF TREATMENT
The Venezuelan leader prefers being treated in Cuba because he is guaranteed discretion on the tightly controlled island and can lean on the counsel of his friend and mentor Fidel Castro.
In his speech, in which he appeared animated and smiled and joked with his ministers, he forecast he would win the October 7 election with more than 60 percent of votes. Most recent polls give him a strong lead over his opposition rival, youthful Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles.
Political analysts say his strength in the polls is due to his strong emotional connection with the country's poor majority, as well as heavy state spending on popular welfare programs.
The surveys consistently show, however, that as many as a third of Venezuelans remain undecided, and both camps have been waging a fierce battle to win them over.
"The undecideds are definitely going to define the election," Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalisis, said on Thursday at the presentation of the pollster's results from March, which gave Chavez 44 percent to 31 percent for Capriles.
Leon said sympathy over Chavez's illness had supported his ratings and taken the edge off the political momentum Capriles gained when he easily won the opposition's primary in February.
"Capriles has not lost the battle," he said. "Clearly it is not an easy task, but the opposition never had a real option at presidential elections before, and now Capriles has a chance."
Capriles, 39, is widely seen as the opposition's best hope of unseating Chavez after years of failures via the ballot box and street protests. He has set off on a nationwide "house-by-house listening tour" to kick-start his campaign.
The center-left politician has largely avoided direct verbal clashes with the president and is promising a Brazilian-style government for Venezuela that would promote free-market policies alongside strong social programs.
Chavez, known for his radical populism, nationalizations and fierce anti-U.S. rhetoric, has denounced him as the "ultra-right" candidate and a treasonous puppet of Washington.
Separately on Thursday, Venezuela's national electoral authority confirmed October 7 as the election date - squashing rumors that the poll might be brought forward, or delayed, due to Chavez's cancer treatment.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo, Marianna Parraga and Deisy Buitrago; editing by Mohammad Zargham)