December 14, 2012 5:56 pm

Spirit of sick Chávez raised in poll fight

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The absence of Hugo Chávez hung heavily in the air, as Elías Jaua scrambled on to a stage wedged into one of the narrow streets that snake through the hillsides of Petare, one of Latin America’s largest shanty towns.

Catching his breath, Mr Jaua, one of Mr Chávez’s closest aides, sombrely asked for a minute’s silence to pray for the Venezuelan president, who is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba. Then he delivered his stump speech.

“Let’s give Commander Chávez a beautiful victory and win back [the state of] Miranda for the revolution!” cried Mr Jaua, imitating Mr Chávez’s characteristic tub-thumping style for the couple of hundred listeners below him who waved signs that read: “Now more than ever with Chávez.”

Mr Jaua hopes to take control of Miranda, one of Venezuela’s most populous states that includes much of Caracas, at Sunday’s gubernatorial elections.

But his monotonous delivery – analysts sometimes refer to the 43-year-old former vice-president as “charismatically challenged” – was also a reminder of how deeply the “Bolivarian revolution” depends on Mr Chávez and his charisma.

Indeed, as Venezuelans nervously await news of the president’s recovery, with masses held across the country to pray for his health, many people are beginning to ask themselves whether his leftist movement can survive without him.

Mr Jaua, who was replaced as vice-president in October by the man that Mr Chávez has named as his political heir, Nicolás Maduro, faces a particularly important task. Running against him on Sunday is Henrique Capriles, the de facto leader of the opposition, who won the governorship of Miranda state in 2008 from another of Mr Chávez’s close aides, Diosdado Cabello.

A defeat of Mr Capriles – especially after he lost October’s presidential election against Mr Chávez by a wide margin – would decapitate the opposition, analysts say. That would help ensure the viability of “chavismo without Chávez” – especially if the leader’s illness suddenly forced a new presidential election.

“That would be an atomic bomb for the opposition,” said Luis Vicente León, a respected Caracas-based pollster. “Miranda represents a brutally important symbol for chavismo. To win would be to destroy the natural candidate to face Maduro.”

A similarly important battleground is the oil-rich state of Zulia, Venezuela’s most populous state, which is governed by another powerful opposition leader, Pablo Pérez.

Although Mr Chávez’s health prevents him from campaigning alongside some of the weaker candidates contesting the 23 governorships, the high emotion running among government supporters may motivate greater numbers to go out and vote, say analysts.

Mr Capriles has even accused Mr Jaua of abusing the situation by urging people to vote “so that the president can recover”.

“Now that the president is going through a difficult moment . . . some people who have nothing to offer to our state are taking advantage,” said Mr Capriles, referring to Mr Jaua. “What have these elections got to do with the president’s problems?”

Mr León, who predicted Mr Chávez’s victory in the October presidential election, says opposition candidates remain the favourites to win in both Miranda and Zulia.

Whether Mr Capriles wins or not, the gubernatorial elections hold significance for the broader opposition, too. It currently controls eight out of 23 states, mostly in urban areas, and the posts provide visibility for leaders, as well as built-in machinery to mobilise supporters.

Yet in the presidential poll, Mr Chávez won a majority in all but two states. His candidates now hope to capitalise on that momentum - and the opposition’s resulting demoralisation. They also stand to gain from the far-reaching networks of Mr Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Opinion polls suggest that PSUV candidates will win a comfortable majority of states, even though the quasi-religious following that Mr Chávez enjoys at a national level may not translate into similar support for his hand-picked candidates at a regional level. Many of them are outsiders without a local support base.

Meanwhile, Mr Chávez’s health condition is “stable”, but remains “complex, tough and delicate”, as he recovers from surgery, according to Ernesto Villegas, information minister. Mr Villegas even suggested that Mr Chávez might not return in time for his presidential inauguration on January 10.

According to the constitution, a snap election must be held within 30 days following the “permanent absence” of a president. However, it is less clear what happens if a president-elect is alive but unable to attend his swearing-in ceremony at the start of a new six-year term.

“Let us hope that, with the love of millions, the commander will recover soon and come to take command before January 10,” said Mr Villegas.

“Otherwise, our people must be prepared to understand. It would be irresponsible to hide the sensitivity of the current time and the days ahead.”

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