Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Commentary section of GlobalPost
Venezuela’s political future is clouded by unpredictable, interdependent variables. President Hugo Chavez’s health is not the only uncertainty. Venezuelans debate whether their president will leave office before or after the Oct. 7 presidential elections. They ask, if he goes, who in the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) will fill Chavez’s role? They wonder whether the October vote will be held on time, if at all; whether the opposition candidate can prevail; and whether the Chavistas will respect an opposition victory.
Chavez has attempted to dispel rumors of his demise, but his appearances are infrequent and few believe that his cancer is in remission. Chavez’s physical condition and the future of Venezuelan politics are of considerable concern to hemispheric neighbors and to Venezuelans.
Three scenarios are currently being discussed:
• Chavez, or his successor, secures a credible victory in October, or a subsequent “special election” that the Constitution requires should the president become incapacitated in the first four years of his term in office;
• The opposition wins; or
• Allies of Chavez cling to power by announcing a state of emergency and canceling the elections.
A guessing game emerges: What are the chances for the opposition party’s success? Who might succeed Chavez? The president’s cancer has undermined his aura of invincibility, spurred a power struggle among potential PSUV successors and raised the question whether the opposition party, Coalition for a Democratic Unity (MUD), can remain united, absent Chavez.
MUD has rallied behind Henrique Capriles Radonski, the former governor of Miranda state who gained 64.2 percent support in the presidential primary this past February. He has stressed reconciliation, unity and non-retaliation against Chavez supporters.
However, Capriles’ growing popularity has not peeled off the almost 60 percent of likely voters who favor Chavez. This is because the poor depend upon the "misiones" (welfare programs) and 8 million Venezuelans rely on jobs in the government or in state-owned enterprises.
Anticipating Chavez’s incapacity the PSUV is now probing alternative candidates to become his successor. If Chavez becomes incapacitated over a prolonged period, Vice President Elias Jaua would assume the presidency for 90 days. A simple vote in the National Assembly could extend this period. According to Article 233, were Chavez to be totally incapacitated, or die, Jaua would complete Chavez’s six-year term as president.
Jaua, however, is considered politically weak; others vie to replace him. Brother Adan Chavez is a possible candidate, but the Constitution forbids a family member from succession. Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Speaker of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello are possible inheritors. Chavez also appointed General Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva as defense minister. Both Cabello and Rangel joined Chavez in the 1992 attempted coup d’etat and are known as uncompromisingly adverse toward the opposition.
Opposition leader Capriles has succeeded in holding the MUD together. According to a March Datanalisis poll, Capriles held a favorable 31.4 percent of the vote compared to 44.7 percent for Chavez. A more recent July poll resulted in a similar split. This gives Chavez a comfortable lead. However, beyond Chavez, other potential PSUV candidates all score lower than Capriles at the polls.
It is questionable whether the 113,000 member Venezuelan armed forces would support a Capriles victory. Senior officers have indicated their respect for the Constitution and the legitimate electoral outcome. Furthermore, senior commanding officers are said to be divided in their loyalty to Chavez, making the armed forces an unpredictable factor should the opposition win.
An alternative scenario exists: Were the polls to indicate a likely majority vote for Capriles and the MUD, those close to Chavez could use the Chavista gangs who rule the streets in many parts of Venezuela to provoke widespread unrest. This could also occur after a Capriles victory in October. Both scenarios would justify the declaration of a state of emergency ("estado de conmocion"). In the case of internal conflict, Article 338 of the Venezuelan Constitution allows for the suspension of civil liberties for up to 180 days. This would give sufficient time for a caretaker government to postpone the election.
If Chavez were to win and become incapacitated before inauguration, a new presidential election would need to be held within 30 days. Before the winner of this new election is inaugurated, Speaker Cabello would assume the presidency. Cabello would not have an interest in violence, but rather the stability of the regime and the maintenance of the status quo.
Even if Capriles is permitted to win and assume office, the PSUV will continue to hold a simple majority in the National Assembly until 2016. PSUV legislators would likely vote against Capriles and his MUD party reformers, suggesting stalemate and continued PSUV influence on public affairs.
As presidential candidate, Capriles must calm the provocateurs that seek to justify an estado de conmocion. Were he to win, he might offer an amnesty to those Chavistas who have enriched themselves through legitimate business deals. However, he need not extend amnesty to those who have participated flagrantly in the drug business.
With support from Colombia and Brazil, Capriles must move skillfully and swiftly to assert the rule of law. Capriles will need the support of the international community to assure that his victory at the polls can be guaranteed. A Nicaraguan style government could emerge in which Capriles occupies the presidency while allowing some former officials to retain senior government positions. The tenuous coalition worked for Nicaragua in 1991, and the same could work for Venezuela in 2012.
Chavismo will probably not die, but without its standard bearer, it can wither away so long as selected Chavistas are given space for reconciliation.