BOGOTA -- Two months after losing the presidency to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s newly united opposition was hoping that regional elections would prove that it could still put up a fight.
Instead, the red tide of Chavismo swept away all but three opposition governors Sunday and showed that it could pack a punch even when its ailing leader was not actively campaigning.
Sunday’s vote was a stunning defeat for the opposition and is likely to lead to a shakeup in the coalition. But it also cleared the political battlefield, leaving Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles as one of the few likely options to take on an eventual Chávez successor.
Capriles won Miranda — which includes part of greater Caracas — with 52 percent of the vote in a race that pitted him against former Vice President Elías Jaua, who had been handpicked by Chávez to defeat the opposition poster boy.
“Capriles’ victory in Miranda clearly positions him as the only viable opposition candidate in the very likely event that Chávez’s health issues force him to step down and call new elections,” wrote the U.S.-based Eurasia Group consulting firm. “This is very positive for the opposition in that it will facilitate the process of selecting a unified candidate in what will likely be a very short turnaround before new elections are held.”
Chávez traveled to Cuba last week to undergo his fourth surgery in 18 months to treat an undisclosed form of cancer. On Tuesday, the government said Chávez was in stable condition after devloping a resperatory infection as result of the “complicated” surgery. They also said he required “absolute rest in coming days.” If he is unable to begin his new six-year term on Jan. 10, or if he steps down within the first four years of his administration, new elections would have to be held within 30 days
The illness comes as Venezuela urgently needs to make economic adjustments, including a devaluation, said Risa Grais-Targow, a Latin America analyst with Eurasia. And the ruling party would be well served to hold elections before those unpopular reforms are rolled out, “In terms of the economic incentives and the necessary devaluation, I think they need to hold the election as soon as possible,” she said. “And now with the momentum of the regional elections, they have even more motivation to do so.”
Before traveling to Cuba, Chávez asked the nation to support Vice President Nicolás Maduro if new elections are called.
John Magdaleno, the director of the Caracas-based Polity consulting firm, agrees that Capriles is the most visible opposition candidate at the moment, but he said that might change as the opposition coalition takes heat for Sunday’s defeat.
In the 2008 regional race, the opposition won six state houses and picked up a seventh when Lara Gov. Henry Falcón split with the PSUV.
Many were expecting the coalition to hold onto at least five or six states in this election, he said.
The loss “will spark a debate in the short term about the efficiency of the opposition,” he said. “And there are going to be questions about how decisions are being made at the helm of the coalition.”
Those questions might lead to a new primary, or other changes, that could threaten Capriles’ position.