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With Chavez stricken, elections become crucial

Sunday - 12/16/2012, 12:00am  ET

A banner that reads in Spanish "Now more than ever with Chavez" on a street pole in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012. Hugo Chavez's cancer has upended politics in Venezuela, transforming Sunday's nationwide elections for state governors and legislators into a test of his legacy that could chart the country's future in the uncertain months ahead. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

FABIOLA SANCHEZ
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Hugo Chavez's cancer has upended politics in Venezuela, transforming Sunday's nationwide elections for state governors and legislators into a test of his legacy that could chart the country's future in the uncertain months ahead.

For the first time in his nearly 14 years in power, the charismatic, voluble Venezuelan president has been unable to actively participate in such a campaign.

The question now hovering over the vote: Will his illness help or hurt the ruling apparatus he has built almost singlehandedly and strengthen his leftist agenda?

If Chavez's camp can maintain dominance in the country's 23 governorships, all but eight of which it holds, it can forge ahead with plans to solidify his "socialist revolution" by fortifying grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.

Chavez's backers have framed the election as a referendum on his legacy, angling for the sympathy vote.

For the opposition, the elections are apt to determine the fate of its leadership. The most pivotal race involves Henrique Capriles, who gave Chavez his stiffest challenge yet in the Oct. 7 presidential election by winning 44 percent of the votes.

If Capriles, 40, can win re-election as governor of Miranda state, which includes parts of the capital, the grandson of a Polish Holocaust survivor would be the opposition's most likely choice in the event of a presidential election that would need to be called within 30 days if Chavez died. Even before Chavez's mortality became a factor, the Miranda race was considered crucial for the opposition with Capriles facing Elias Jaua, Chavez's former vice president.

Chavez has virtually monopolized power in his person, painting much of the country red, the color of his leftist movement, as he nationalized key industries and expropriated private land.

The man he designated to succeed him before flying to Cuba last Sunday for cancer surgery, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, is a political lightweight by comparison. Capriles is widely seen as having a far better chance against Maduro than against Chavez.

Another key race is in Zulia state, Venezuela's most populous, where opposition Gov. Pablo Perez is running for re-election.

David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociologist and analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, believes Capriles will hold on to Miranda's governorship. But he expects an unusually high turnout Sunday that he believes will favor the Chavistas, even among voters fed up with high-level corruption in the president's inner circle.

Many Chavistas have been moved by the president's plight, and some pro-Chavez candidates have been calling for people to vote for them in a show of support and solidarity.

"It is now about Chavez and his legacy," said Smilde. "And there is a lot of sympathy."

Smilde said the woman who cleans his Caracas apartment complains about Chavez but, after news suggesting his cancer was incurable, "she was talking to me with her eyes moist about Chavez and how she's going to vote for Elias Jaua, and that kind of surprised me and I tend to think it's not isolated."

Gladys Espinel, who recently completed studies at the free, state-run Bolivarian University to be a schoolteacher, was also voting for Jaua.

"The (electoral) map is going to be filled with red because that's the best gift we can give our president," she said in a downtown Caracas bakery.

Chavez's health has become such a factor in the vote that pocketbook issues like growing public debt and a scarcity of dollars that's pushing up the prices of foreign goods are falling to the side.

In the past, the opposition has fared better in regional elections than in presidential votes because it could hone in on nuts-and-bolts issues such as the plethora of unfinished public works projects under Chavez or citizen insecurity.

Smilde noted the big popularity boost that followed Chavez's re-election to another six-year term: 68 percent approval in an early November poll by the Datanalisis firm.

And that's before he announced he would need a fourth surgery for a cancer first diagnosed in mid-2011.

Candidates of the governing Unity Socialist Party of Venezuela have campaigned on strengthening communes, which are grass-roots citizen councils that receive their funding directly from the central government.

It's a mechanism that has allowed Chavez to bypass state and municipal control and build loyalty, or dependency, opponents say, among the working poor through government goods and services they never had before. Free health care, subsidized food and access to free education have proliferated under the system.

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