Sunday’s regional elections in Venezuela were supposed to be a sideshow to October’s presidential race where Hugo Chávez won a fourth term and soundly beat the opposition.
But as Chávez’s failing health raises the specter of snap presidential elections, the regional vote could become a fight to determine who will take on Chávez’s political heir.
“This was supposed to be an administrative event about regional issues,” said Julio César Pineda a political analyst and former ambassador. “But President Chávez’s sudden illness has completely changed the electoral scenario and made this a very important race.”
Chávez traveled to Cuba on Monday for a fourth round of surgery to treat an undisclosed form of cancer that has been hounding him since June 2011. On Thursday, the government said he suffered a hemorrhage during the procedure but that his status had been upgraded from “stable” to “favorable.”
If he’s unable to assume the presidency on Jan. 10 and begin his new six-year term — and some in his cabinet have suggested that might be the case — the country would have to hold new elections within 30 days. In that case, Chávez has asked the nation to rally behind Vice President Nicolás Maduro.
In short, the opposition may have a chance at a presidential “do over” and the outcome of Sunday’s vote will likely determine the lineup.
The stakes are highest for Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles. The energetic 40-year-old shot to prominence in February when he won the opposition’s first-ever primary and then barnstormed the nation to take on Chávez.
He lost the race by an 11-point spread, but his strong showing and ability to unify the opposition make him the obvious choice to face Maduro, or any other Chavista candidate, analysts said.
While most polls show Capriles winning the governor’s race, he’s facing stiff opposition: Chávez’s former Vice President Elías Jaua, who has the states’ vast resources and media machine behind him.
In addition, opposition voters are entering the fight demoralized and Capriles narrowly lost Miranda during the presidential vote, said Luis Vicente León, the head of the Datanalisis polling firm.
Capriles may be leading polls but “that doesn’t mean he’s going to win...it’s going to be a battle,” León said.
Another closely-watched race is that of oil-rich Zulia state where Gov. Pablo Pérez is running for reelection against the ruling party’s Francisco Arias Cárdenas, a former military officer who participated with Chávez in a failed coup attempt in 1992.
Pérez came in second in February’s opposition primary, making him another obvious opposition standard bearer — if he can hold onto his seat.
If both Capriles and Pérez lose “it would be a debacle both from an image and operational standpoint for the opposition,” León said. “Miranda and Zulia are the jewels of the crown.”
And it would also spark a power struggle that could tear apart the fragile anti-Chávez coalition.
“The monsters within the opposition would be unleashed,” he said.
Russ Dallen, the head of Caracas Capital Markets, agreed that it would be “open season” if Capriles loses Sunday’s vote, but with so much at stake he foresees the opposition quickly coalescing around a new presidential candidate.
Among the contenders are Congresswoman María Corina Machado, former United Nations Ambassador Diego Arria, and Lara Gov. Henry Falcón, he said.
“The opposition has a deep bench of great candidates,” Dallen said.
Chávez’s PSUV party controls 15 out of the 23 governors’ posts and has vowed to sweep the election. Most analysts expect the PSUV to expand its lead on the back of October’s win and as the leadership has been urging voters to hit the polls as a sign of support for Chávez.
But the vote will also be a test to see how well the administration’s get-out-the-vote machine works when Chávez is not on the ticket, wrote the Eurasia Group, a New York-based consulting firm.
“This will be especially important to determining Maduro’s electoral chances in a likely future election,” the organization wrote.
But with Chávez’s health changing on a daily basis (just a few weeks ago he was still saying that he was completely cured of the cancer) it may be too soon to tell how it will shake out.
“I think the illness has taken everyone by surprise, both the opposition and the government and they haven’t really had time to react,” Pineda said.
While Maduro has Chávez’s blessing and is seen to have the support of the Castro brothers in Havana, many expect National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who is thought to have the backing of the military and the PSUV’s business elite, to make a move for the presidency, Pineda said.
Pineda, who wrote a book about the president’s health called The Black Swan: Chávez’s Cancer and the Illness of Messianic Leaders, said that when charismatic leaders like Chávez step down, crippling infighting often breaks out.
“Usually, when a messianic leader disappears, they take their politics with them,” Pineda said.
With the presidency seemingly up for grabs again, analysts said they will be looking at national voting numbers more than individual governors’ races.
The opposition “need to focus on the number of votes and how they are split among the opposition and Chavistas,” Dallen said. “Everything else doesn’t really matter.”