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Sympathy for Chavez a factor in Venezuela politics

Tuesday - 12/18/2012, 1:10am  ET

Miranda State's Gov. Henrique Capriles speaks after he was re-elected during an elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. Capriles lost to Chavez in the country's October election, and his re-election Sunday will allow him to cement his position as Venezuela's dominant opposition leader, even as other opposition candidates floundered.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Smarting after a bruising loss in state elections, Venezuela's opposition will now be forced to reassess its strategy and rebuild quickly to prepare for presidential elections that many expect could be called to replace ailing President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez's bleak outlook after his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba last week appears to have galvanized his supporters, making Vice President Nicolas Maduro a tough candidate to beat in new elections, which under the constitution would be called within 30 days if the president dies, is incapacitated or steps down.

"It is a 30-day period that is going to be infused with all of the heightened emotion around Chavez's departure," said Cynthia Arnson, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "The sympathy vote and the fervor of the Chavista base to come out and vote for the continuation of the revolution will be very high."

Maduro would also get a boost from a socialist party that swept 20 of 23 state elections in Sunday's gubernatorial elections. One of the three anti-Chavez candidates who held off the onslaught was Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October's presidential vote but is now widely considered the opposition's best hope against Maduro.

Capriles played down that possibility when asked if he would run for president again.

"It isn't the time to be making those calculations," Capriles told reporters Sunday night. "There will be time."

He added that it was Chavez's government that raised the possible scenario of new elections, and he questioned the idea of a hand-picked successor inheriting power.

"Leaders aren't decreed. They're built," said Capriles, who seemed in campaign mode wearing a baseball cap and track suit emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag.

On a national level, Chavez's allies won 4.7 million votes in the state elections, much less than the 8.1 million who voted for Chavez in October but still more than 970,000 votes ahead of the opposition.

The 53 percent voter turnout on Sunday was considerably lower than the more than 80 percent who cast ballots in October's presidential vote, and the high abstention affected both camps.

The vote was the first in Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency in which he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn't spoken publicly since Tuesday's cancer surgery, and he remained out of sight while recovering in Cuba, accompanied by his four children and son-in-law.

Sunday's strong showing will likely give the president's confidants a freer hand to deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.

Arnson said she expects that Chavez's blessing of Maduro, amid an outpouring of emotion over the president's departure, would be a powerful ingredient for an election campaign.

The 50-year-old Maduro, a burly former bus driver, has shown unflagging loyalty and become a leading spokesman for the leftist leader while serving as foreign minister during the past six years. Chavez appointed Maduro vice president after winning re-election in October.

Maduro stood in for Chavez on Monday presiding over an annual ceremony marking the anniversary of independence hero Simon Bolivar's death. Troops stood at attention outside the National Pantheon while an orchestra and choir performed, led by star conductor Gustavo Dudamel. State television showed images of Bolivar's flag-draped coffin.

Afterward, Maduro called the elections an important victory but also noted that one government candidate, in Bolivar state, nearly lost due to a vote split by a second pro-Chavez contender. He said there had been similar problems in a few states.

"What would have happened if they had lost in those states?" Maduro told reporters. "We should reflect, and in those states where there were parallel candidacies we need to have a process of reunification. ... We're going to reunify all the patriotic, revolutionary forces."

"For the love of the nation, for the love of Chavez, we're going to unite our forces for the battles to come," Maduro said, without elaborating.

The government has spent heavily on social programs and new public housing projects around the country, with the spending boosting Chavez's image ahead of his re-election win in October. In the coming months, however, the government is expected to face new constraints on spending with the country's currency having slipped on the black market and its debt growing.

"With all its economic difficulties, the government will be hard-pressed to create new programs in the coming months. But it doesn't really need to," Arnson said. "Chavez's incapacity or death will trigger a tremendous outpouring of emotion, some of which is directly rooted in the social benefits that people have already received."

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