CARACAS (Reuters) - Gripping the wheel and grinning at passengers, acting President Nicolas Maduro drives a bus to campaign rallies before an election he hopes will let him steer Venezuela to six more years of hardline socialism.
From banners all around him, the image of the man Maduro calls his “father,” the late Hugo Chavez, beams beatifically and salutes.
“Chavez sets the route, Maduro takes the wheel!” is the catchy slogan of the government’s campaign ahead of the presidential election next Sunday to choose Chavez’s successor.
Playing up his working-class roots as a bus driver and union leader, Maduro promises to push forward Chavez’s “21st century socialism” if he wins.
Opinion polls give him a double-digit lead over centrist opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
At each campaign rally, the burly, mustachioed 50-year-old plays video of his late boss instructing his millions of supporters to vote for Maduro if the worst happened.
Chavez died of cancer on March 5.
Helped by a slick public relations campaign run by Brazilian strategists, the maverick former soldier easily won re-election in October despite being largely out of the public eye for weeks at a time during sessions of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
After his death, state media went into overdrive, pushing their already adoring coverage of Chavez to near-religious levels.
That formidable machinery is now swinging behind Maduro.
In the most polished of his new campaign videos, to a backdrop of swirling strings, Venezuelans write messages such as “For the love of my culture” and “For the love of my children” on balloons, and then release them into the sky.
Finally, Chavez’s face appears in the clouds, and he winks.
‘MOUSTACHES OF MY FATHERLAND’
One light-hearted campaign video, “Maduro is in Fashion,” features the candidate hugging children, dancing enthusiastically at a rally, and, of course, driving a bus.
At one point, a cheering female supporter runs alongside his convoy holding aloft two over-ripe bananas in a play on his name, which means “mature” in Spanish.
One tongue-in-cheek Facebook campaign run by Maduro supporters - “Moustaches of my Fatherland” - features hundreds of photos of voters with stick-on or photo-shopped facial hair.
Fake whiskers are also handed out at his rallies.
Maduro’s campaign events usually also feature a second spot from another son of the working class made good - former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, an ex-shoeshine boy - endorsing his candidacy.
Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, has hit back with videos such as “Nicolas, you’re the problem” and “Five Reasons for a Change” featuring crime, power cuts, nationalizations, poor hospitals and water shortages.
He accuses Maduro of being a bad copy of Chavez and of mawkishly using the former president’s death to advance his own candidacy.
Maduro formally launched his campaign from the modest rural home where Chavez grew up. “We’re all going in the bus of the fatherland, which has a driver. ... Here he is, Chavez’s driver!” he said, pointing to himself.
As Chavez battled his illness last year, supporters in Caracas shantytowns created a series of campaign images and murals that showed the 58-year-old as a fit young “tough,” rapping, boxing, playing basketball and pulling a wheelie on a motorcycle.
The same group has now turned its attention to promoting Maduro. One of its new images shows a young motor bike taxi driver sporting a bushy moustache like the candidate.
“Now we’re tougher,” it says.
Another shows a smiling Maduro with his arm round a much younger, equally happy-looking woman, with the slogan: “Me gustan maduros” (“I like older guys”) in yet another play on his name.
Some of the new campaign images echo a saying sometimes seen on the back of Venezuelan buses: “If your daughter suffers and cries, it’s because of a driver” - a self-aggrandizing phrase implying that transportation workers are all heart-breakers.
In Maduro’s posters, “daughter” is replaced with “Capriles.”
Supporters have also reveled in the fact that, as a younger man, Maduro used to play in a rock band called Enigma.
One campaign image shows him brandishing an electric guitar emblazoned with the word “socialism.” Another has an amplifier bearing a slogan that now it is time to rock, “con Maduro, mas duro” (“with Maduro, harder”).
As with the murals of a youthful, active Chavez, some of the pro-Maduro campaign imagery has drawn scorn from the opposition.
His recent account of how he was visited by Chavez’s spirit in the form of a small bird that flew into a chapel where he was praying generated a torrent of online mockery.
The response of loyal “Chavistas” - the vast majority of whom are expected to comply with Chavez’s wish that they vote for Maduro - was largely summed up in another image posted on social media.
“So you make bad jokes about Maduro. Tell me, how does it feel to know that, despite your mockery, he’s going to be your new president?”
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney