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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 Andrew RosatiCorrespondent / December 14, 2012

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.

Ramon Espinosa/AP


Caracas, Venezuela

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.

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HAVANA, Cuba - Soldiers attend a Mass in Cuba to pray for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's health.

"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.

"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.


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