One week after Hugo Chavez stunned his nation with news of new cancer surgery and anointed Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro as his heir, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect 23 governors and members of state legislatures.
Initial electoral results indicate that Chavez’s candidates won in 20 of the 23 governors’ races, regaining from the opposition four previous governorships. These victories were attributed to low voter turnouts, widespread sympathy for the ailing Chavez, the effectiveness of the Commandante’s political machine, and a lack of clear-cut alternatives to Chavista programs of social benefits and generous subsidies.
Despite such unpromising electoral news, the former candidate of the united opposition in the October 7 presidential elections, Henrique Capriles, held on to win re-election in Miranda state. He defeated Elias Jaua, Chavez’s former vice president, by a slender margin. The victory is significant because it enables Capriles to keep himself in the forefront of opposition figures hoping to slow his nation’s march toward authoritarian socialism and worse.
In Havana, various official sources claim Chavez is recovering satisfactorily from complicated surgery but suggest his return to Caracas and to power remains distant. The nature of Chavez’s cancer that has thus far required four separate surgeries in addition to radiation and chemical therapy remains unknown.
By law, the new president must be sworn in on January 10. If Chavez is too ill to assume the presidency for the fourth time, it could trigger a new round of presidential elections within 30 days. His death would clearly lead to a battle for succession.
One thing appears certain: Venezuelans can expect stormy political weather ahead. Two former U.S. Ambassadors to Venezuela—Charles Shapiro and Patrick Duddy—see a polarized and “de-institutionalized” Venezuela as potentially turbulent and unstable for the foreseeable future.