A self-styled "apostle" of Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, who became Venezuela's president Friday, climbed from humble beginnings as a bus driver to the pinnacle of power in the shadow of his charismatic predecessor.

"I am the first post-Chavez president in history," he proclaimed hours before taking the oath of office and donning a presidential sash that Chavez made his own for 14 years until his death of cancer on March 5 at age 58.

A loyalist's loyalist, the 50-year-old Maduro has yet to fully come into his own politically, campaigning in Chavez's name and owing a narrow victory in bitterly contested snap elections on Sunday to the deep well of support for the comandante.

But Maduro -- tall, burly and moustachioed -- has made a political virtue of his fidelity to Chavez, whose failed military coup in 1992 inspired the young union organizer who became a bodyguard and member of his leftist movement.

Many of Chavez's early followers later broke ranks with the comandante, but Chavez pulled Maduro up with him.

He became speaker of the National Assembly, then foreign minister and finally vice president after Chavez's last election victory in October 2012, when he was already gravely ill.

"Look where Nicolas is going," Chavez said at the time. "He was a bus driver, and how they mocked him."

Chavez turned to his protege again in December, announcing to the country that if he did not return from cancer treatment in Cuba, his followers should vote for Maduro, the only time the Venezuelan leader had declared a political heir.

"I never expected this. Never," Maduro said in an exclusive March 31 interview with AFP.

"But it was absolutely moving and surprising that a leader you love, and who you have always been loyal to, at one moment says: 'Look, I am going for an operation and there are three scenarios.

"One is that the operation does not succeed, the second is that it leaves me very frail, and in those two cases it is your turn. You must take charge,'" Maduro said in a campaign-trail interview in the western city of Barinas.

Maduro presented himself as Chavez's reverent surrogate, pledging continuity and adherence to the socialist revolution and defense of the poor that his flamboyant predecessor had championed.

As foreign minister he led Venezuela's courtship of anti-Western regimes in Iran, Syria and Cuba, while forging a leftist bloc with like-minded Latin American states.

But he was then seen as a pragmatist who engaged in back-channel contacts with the United States, Chavez's arch-foe.

Maduro the candidate adopted Chavez's aggressive "anti-imperialist" rhetoric and penchant for painting his opposition as "fascist" plotters.

Also during the campaign, he accused former US officials of plotting to assassinate him, and claimed to have smashed a right-wing plot to stage a coup d'etat.

Infusing his often rambling speeches with religious imagery, he portrayed Chavez in saintly terms, once even referring to him as "Christ, the redeemer of the poor."

He said Chavez's spirit had visited him in the form of a "little bird," and that he had whistled back to the bird. After the opposition mocked him, he sought to turn it to his advantage, whistling at every rally while releasing parakeets.

He has regularly appeared surrounded by Chavez's family and named the late leader's son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, as his vice president.

But he has also brought his own style, driving his campaign bus to rallies, playing the bongo before huge crowds and mocking his rival Henrique Capriles at every turn. He kissed his wife, former attorney general Cilia Flores, at most campaign events.

Yet, when the election returns were counted, it was evident that hundreds of thousands of "Chavistas" had deserted him for the younger Capriles, who closed a 15-point gap in the polls to finish with a 1.8 percentage point loss to Maduro.

Calls for a recount, and flaring post-election violence that left eight people dead, underscored the rapid, volatile changes in Venezuela's political landscape in the post-Chavez era.

Maduro responded by accusing the opposition of seeking a coup and warning he would use a "hard fist" as president. But in the end, pragmatism appeared to have prevailed, with election authorities promising a full audit of the vote.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]