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.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Venezuelans look for their identification number on lists outside a voting station during regional election in Caracas December 16. Venezuelans vote for state governors on Sunday in an election that will decide if the opposition stays united behind youthful leader Henrique Capriles amid signs that President Hugo Chavez's cancer could force him to step down.

Venezuelans vote on Sunday in state elections that will define the future of opposition leader Henrique Capriles and test political forces ahead of a possible new presidential vote if Hugo Chavez is incapacitated by cancer.

The vote for 23 state governorships, seven of which are currently controlled by the opposition, has been overshadowed by the president's battle to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba.

Capriles, 40, needs to hold on to the governorship of Miranda state to remain the opposition's presidential candidate-in-waiting, while both sides will want a good showing to create momentum in case of a new showdown over who replaces Chavez.

"This is the best indication of how well the opposition will fare in an upcoming contest for the presidency between Henrique Capriles and designated Chavez dauphin Vice President Nicolas Maduro," said Russell Dallen ofCaracas-based BBO Financial Services.

Turnout was thin in early voting across the country, in contrast to the long lines for the presidential ballot two months ago, which handed Chavez a third term.

"I'm surprised. In the presidential election I got here at 3 a.m. and there were a lot of people in line. Today I got here at 5 a.m. and I was the first person," said Nathaly Betancourt, who was voting in the western city of Punto Fijo.

Opposition sympathizers complained via Twitter that centers in affluent anti-Chavez sectors of Caracas that are crucial for Capriles were notably empty.

The South American OPEC nation appears more focused on Chavez's recovery in Havana from Tuesday's operation, the socialist leader's fourth since he was diagnosed with cancer in his pelvic region in mid-2011.

Government officials on Saturday night said Chavez had regained full consciousness and was giving instructions. His son-in-law, who serves as Science and Technology Minister, acknowledged there had been "moments of tension" during and after the operation, but said Chavez was steadily improving.

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.

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.

EMOTIONAL BACKDROP

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.