Venezuela opposition and civil society groups are calling for fresh elections should President Hugo Chávez succumb to cancer, a prospect that could lead to a power struggle within the ruling PSUV party, analysts suggest.
In a Saturday night speech, Chavez designated Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro (left) as his successor should he become incapacitated.
“For the first time he’s planting the seed that people should vote for Maduro. He’s never crossed that bridge before,” said Latin America strategist Bret Rosen. “This could very well be a major inflection point for the country.”
The country’s democratic opposition is demanding that any successor must secure electoral legitimacy.
“Here in Venezuela, when someone leaves office, the nation has the last word,” said Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in October’s presidential election. “We’re in Venezuela, not Cuba, and here you can’t talk about successors.”
He criticized the populist president for not coming clean about his condition, and said many people had voted for him because he had vowed he was healthy.
“It’s unjustifiable that all those promises made during the campaign are being set adrift,” Capriles said. “The nation needs a government that can solve its real problems, and if it can’t do it, then it should admit it and let others step in.”
“We remain of the view there could very well be no Chávismo without Chávez,” analyst Alberto Ramos said, warning in a research note of “a possibly noisy, and not necessarily short, political transition in Venezuela.”
While Venezuela’s democratic opposition has grown in strength and unified behind Capriles as a presidential candidate, it may fall to cancer to accomplish what it could not.
Fidel Castro, the father of the Latin American left, is 86 years old and infirm. Hugo Chávez, his ideological son, is only 58-years old (and with a body that still looks like “packed concrete,” as Gabriel García Márquez once put it). But the Venezuelan president’s cancer condition is worsening. After 14 years in power, Chávez even went so far this past weekend as to endorse a possible successor – his vice president Nicolas Maduro.
“Venezuela’s destiny in the years ahead will be determined by human frailty, rather than by ideology,” former Venezuelan minister Moises Naim predicted, shortly after Chávez’s electoral victory over Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles in October.
“He said goodbye to power,” he said. “It’s a statement full of resignation and appeals to God. There is no plan. The only talk of the future is that there will be elections and he asks for people to vote for Maduro.”
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the director of the opposition coalition, said the regime secrecy had led to “unrest and uncertainty.”
“Nobody knows for sure what is real and what is not,” Aveledo said at a news conference. “Hiding information for the benefit of some, at the expense of national interests, is not democratic and doesn’t produce good results.”
Civil society groups also demanded that Chávez’s successor seek a fresh electoral mandate.
“It was time to tell the truth to the country,” said Maria Corina Machado, an opposition member of the National Assembly. “Venezuela has been living with a lot of uncertainty. In a democratic country where the constitution is obeyed, the president must talk about his health when it is compromised.”
Machado said the opposition will call for a strict interpretation of the constitution now that Chávez has suggested the possibility of stepping aside.
“Article 233 of the constitution is clear about the only mechanism, an election within 30 days,” she said. “He can’t name a successor. It’s the Venezuelan people who decide.”
“Chávez might wish he could hand over the reins of power as smoothly as Fidel Castro did,” says FT analyst Rathbone:
But Chávez faces a different set of historic conditions in Venezuela. Unlike the Castro brothers, who came to power as leaders of a popular armed rebellion, Chávez owes his legitimacy to the ballot box. And Venezuela’s new constitution, as approved by Chávez, requires fresh elections should he depart.
“Chávismo” would face a far more uncertain future without the charismatic former tank commander at its head; it was always a highly personalised political project. How uncertain that future could be may be seen at regional elections next week. On December 16, voters will not be choosing their president, as they did in October when Chávez won presidential elections by a large margin, but rather governors and local councilmen. That is an important difference.
A post-Chávez transition “could be tricky” for the regime, analysts said:
If Chávez is unable to take office, National Assembly President and Chávez ally Diosdado Cabello would lead the country, not Maduro, during the 30-day transition period before new elections. That could set the stage for a power struggle within the ruling PSUV party, said Eloy Torres, a political science professor at Santa María University and a former administration diplomat.
“It’s clearly the beginning of the end politically and medically for Chávez,” said Riordan Roett, the head of Latin American studies at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. “Chávez has been a force of nature in Latin American politics, I doubt very much whether Maduro can maintain that Bolivarian charm and charisma.”