Venezuelans vote for state governors, while questions about Chavez's health swirl
On the day of elections for 23 state governorships, which could shake up the opposition, Venezuelans seemed more focused on President Hugo Chavez's recovery from a cancer-related operation he underwent in Cuba last week.
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Few medical details have been released, so speculation remains rife that Chavez may be in a life-threatening situation in Havana's Cimeq hospital with both a difficult post-operative recovery and a possible spreading of the cancer.Skip to next paragraph
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Chavez, 58, is due to start a new term on Jan. 10, but has named Maduro as his preferred successor should he be incapacitated. That would trigger a new presidential poll within 30 days.
Chavez's illness has led to an outpouring of emotion including Catholic masses, prayer meetings and vigils across the country.
Maduro has wept in public, state media are replaying images of Chavez round-the-clock, and various government candidates held closing rallies simply playing the president's voice.
The sympathy factor could benefit Chavez's candidates and offset the disadvantage of losing his charismatic presence on the campaign trail in advance.
"Without wishing to be triumphalist, we have big chances of winning the 23 governorships and that is the biggest support we can give Chavez," said his brother Adan Chavez, who is seeking re-election in their home state of Barinas.
Still smarting from defeat in October, the opposition hopes voters will focus on grassroots issues and punish the government for power outages, pot-hole riddled roads, corruption scandals, violent crime and runaway inflation.
"I put my life at the service of Miranda and Venezuela," Capriles said in his closing rally. "I'm not here to stay in power but to make a dream (of national change) come true."
Though widely expected to retain his Miranda seat, Capriles faces a well-financed challenge from senior Chavez ally Elias Jaua, a former vice president. If he defeats Capriles, it would leave the opposition in disarray and possibly spark in-fighting over who would be its next presidential candidate.
Two other opposition governors, Pablo Perez and Henri Falcon, are obvious possibilities. But first they too must retain their posts to maintain credibility, and they do not have the national recognition Capriles achieved during his unsuccessful run for the presidency in October.
Despite losing, he won the opposition's largest share - 6.5 million votes, or 45 percent - against Chavez, and impressed Venezuelans with his energetic style, visits to the remotest corners of the country and attention to day-to-day issues.
"In the unlikely event that Capriles loses, he would probably have no chance of running for the presidency again," political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said.
The mid-December timing of the vote could count against the opposition, many of whose middle-class supporters often take advantage of school holidays to travel.