With Chávez's health uncertain, Venezuela regional elections will test opposition (+video)

As questions rise about Hugo Chávez's ability to rule, opposition leadership must prove their legitimacy in state elections this weekend if they hope to be contenders in possible future contests.

By , Correspondent

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    An image of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez sits between two military hats during a mass in support of him in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. Chavez is recovering favorably despite suffering complications during cancer surgery in Cuba, his vice president Nicolas Maduro said Thursday amid uncertainty over the Venezuelan leader's health crisis and the country's political future.
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After Henrique Capriles Radonski lost the Venezuelan presidential election to incumbent Hugo Chávez in October, Venezuela's opposition was left reeling. But the party tried to look ahead.

"We lost one game," said Mr. Capriles, comforting a weary electorate in a speech days after his defeat. "Our next game is for the governors' elections."

Second chances can be hard to come by. But given the reportedly fragile health of President Chávez, regional elections on Sunday are taking on new immediacy. Capriles and the opposition leadership must reassure the more than 6.5 million Venezuelans who cast their votes against Chávez of the opposition's legitimacy. Not only are governorship victories good for party morale, but if Chávez is unable to attend his Jan. 10 inauguration – as government official have implied is a real possibility – there is a chance the parties could face off in a renewed fight for Venezuela's presidency.

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"This is a trial by fire for the Democratic Unity Table (MUD)," the political coalition that Capriles represents, says Elza Cardozo, a professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela. "Everything they manage to win is because they are united."

But the MUD isn't always cohesive. It’s a fractious coalition of parties that only banded together in 2008 in hopes of ending Mr. Chávez's 14-year rule. Just weeks after the presidential loss, three congressmen abandoned the party because of infighting.

Losing governorships on Sunday could further splinter the coalition, jeopardizing its chances in future elections. And victory won't be easy: The government is poised to win the majority of the seats up for election. Capriles himself is up for reelection in one state. 

Opposition governors currently control eight out of the 23 states in Venezuela; however, Chávez was able to clinch the presidential vote in all but two of the 23 states just two months ago.

Without Chávez?

Since taking office, Chávez has always been the motor of electoral campaigns, stumping for his party's candidates and referendums. His trademark charisma and sometimes marathon-length orations are often cited as what carries his political party, the PSUV.

Yet, following his October victory, the typically outspoken president has stepped back from the public eye.

Pollsters have speculated how Chávez's current absence – coming after numerous medical trips to Cuba for an undisclosed form of cancer – might benefit the opposition's chances in Sunday's state elections expressly because the president was not tweeting out endorsements or hitting the campaign trail on behalf of various party governors.

But Chávez's recent announcement that his cancer has returned and the designation of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a former trade unionist and minister of foreign affairs, as his desired successor has also resurrected the opposition's hopes for a political wave of change.

If Chávez is unable to attend his January inauguration, the constitution dictates that another presidential election could be less than two months away from now, in February.

Minster of Information Ernesto Villegas told Venezuelans on Wednesday that the president was undergoing a "difficult and complex" recovery from his latest surgery. With the possibility that Chávez will miss his inauguration for a fourth term as president, Mr. Villegas said, "The nation needs to be prepared to understand it."

Eyes on Miranda

Whether or not Chávez's absence the past few weeks will impact regional elections is still unclear. But the most anticipated contest is in the state of Miranda, where Capriles currently serves as governor. He will square off against former Vice President Elias Jaua, Chávez's handpicked candidate for the governorship.

"Capriles is taking a huge political risk," says Herbert Koeneke, a political scientist at Simon Bolivar University. After a wide-margin loss in October, a win will solidify Capriles as the opposition's de facto leader and presidential candidate for 2018, or possibly 2013.

Polls are mixed heading into the race, with some giving Capriles a wide-margin victory; others show Mr. Jaua wining by five points.

"If he loses to Jaua, he doesn't just give up his regional leadership, but also his chances as president," says Mr. Koneke.

A loss in Miranda also means an uncertain future for the MUD coalition. Some blame the party's October presidential loss on the candidate it put forward. If Capriles loses this weekend, it opens the door for other popular opposition leaders such as Pablo Pérez, the governor of Zulia, or Henri Falcón, the governor of Lara, to seek the presidency.

"The government is pulling out all the stops" in its campaigning, even with Chávez's absence, says analyst Robert Bottome, director of VenEconomy publications group. "Anyone [from the opposition] who survives is in a strong position to be candidate for president."

Given the close timing of the race on Sunday, and the potential for a constitutionally invoked presidential race in February, prominent blogger Francisco Toro coined the event a "De facto Primary" for the MUD.

While some opposition hopefuls are already dreaming up a Capriles vs. Maduro scenario, pollsters warn of additional factors in play.

"It's true, Maduro isn't Chávez," says pollster Luis Vincente Leon, president of the survey firm Datanalisis. Mr. Leon stresses that since the constitution calls for a snap election within 30 days after Chávez's departure or inability to stand as president, the ballot is very susceptible to sympathies for the ill leader.  "It's Capriles vs. Maduro and all the emotions surrounding Chavismo."

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