For 14 years, President Hugo Chávez has been a powerful unifying force in Venezuela, galvanizing his diverse supporters behind his lead, and uniting his opponents in their aversion to his policies and persona. Now, with the presidential inauguration still weeks away and Chávez apparently gravely ill, these centrifugal forces will be much harder to hold together, and many observers have predicted political instability, debilitating infighting within both camps and even violence.
Nevertheless, three dynamics could help to prevent Venezuela from spinning out of control. First, Chávez began last week to prepare for a possible transition by warning Venezuelans of the risks of his illness and by naming the person he hopes will succeed him, thus forestalling an open fight for succession at least for the immediate future. Second, the opposition regained a leader when Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez in October, won re-election as governor of Miranda state in regional elections on Dec. 16. Third, both sides have clearly accepted democratic elections as the only legitimate route to power, a change from the dangerous volatility of a decade ago.
Last weekend, with Chávez in Havana, Cuba, undergoing a serious operation to combat the resurgence of his cancer in the run-up to the regional elections, emerging leaders for both Chavismo, his political movement, and the opposition found themselves engaged for the first time in a competition without Chávez’s personal presence. Observers viewed the elections for governors and state legislatures as a test of the opposition’s resiliency after a demoralizing defeat in October’s presidential elections, and of Chavismo’s potential for survival without its namesake there to support candidates on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, the ruling party made ample use of the president’s illness to solicit supporters to vote as an act of love for the “comandante.” Thus, though the December elections gave a boost to Chávez’s party, the PSUV, they should not be seen as a true test of how Chavismo will fare without Chávez.