The further out in time, the more difficult it becomes to predict what will happen in Venezuelan politics. But for now, Chavismo has the upper hand on the opposition with Chavez’ decision to anoint Nicolas Maduro as his successor. As long as Chavez is alive, this decision will likely be respected by all important factions of Chavismo and this is probably the main reason why the choice was made: To placate the many forces that are likely jockeying for position and allow Chavez to be present during a Presidential campaign. While today’s operation is quite dangerous, recall the first procedure in the same area sent the Venezuelan President into intensive care, naming Maduro was likely done in the knowledge that Chavez’ prognosis is bad in the medium term.
The opposition on the other hand has nowfallen behind. Had Capriles stayed out of the Miranda race, he would be the obvious leader of the opposition. Now this designation is in danger depending on the outcome of Sunday’s election. Capriles should win easily, but needs to win by a landslide. Chavismo’s candidate Elias Jaua is not as well known and has little charisma, even if the State of Miranda has been covered with his face. When I was in Venezuela a couple of weeks ago, it seemed as if his face was on all walls of the city, as Chavismo tried to kill Capriles as a future possibility. With Chavez absent to back Jaua, it seems difficult for this to happen, as most pollsters suggest Capriles will win, but a small margin of victory will weaken Capriles and bring other candidates into the fray, with no time for primaries.
By Sunday we will know how well Capriles is placed for a possible second Presidential run, which will likely be his last, if he fails to win the Presidency.
Between now and Jan. 10th., if something were happen to Chavez, Chavismo’s plan to have Maduro be the heir apparent will be briefly interrupted, as it will be the President of the National Assembly who would become President on Jan. 10th. There could be a quirky moment on Jan. 5th. if Diosdado Cabello were to be removed in a “just in case” move, but I doubt it will happen for only five days insurance, as it would affect the unity of Chavismo. If they do decide to replace him, a losing Elias Jaua would likely be the man.
All efforts are likely to be centered on having Hugo Chavez show up on Jan. 10th. to be sworn in. If he does, he can appoint Maduro to be his Vice-President and Chavez can resign after that.
While many analysts suggest that Chavismo will take its time (months, most believe) in calling for an election to replace Chavez, I strongly disagree. The move to designate Maduro as the successor was likely made in the belief that Maduro can win (Yes, he can!) easier with Chavez alive and promoting him, rather than in his absence, which would additionally release the power demons in the various factions of Chavismo. Additionally, since Chavismo will win a large fraction of the Governorships on Sunday, this should also discourage the opposition on a Presidential election to replace Chavez. Thus, Chavismo will benefit from an election as soon as possible.
But even more importantly, if Chavez takes over on Jan. 10th. and designates Maduro immediately as his replacement, who calls for elections in thirty days, the opposition will be way behind, caught flat footed, having no candidate and/or organization. In contrast, Chavismo will still have PSUV ready to help and coordinate the vote drive and its funding is simply unlimited.
Essentially, time is against Maduro and Chavismo, if the Presidential health is deteriorating fast, as it seems to be given the recent developments.
In the scenario of a Maduro victory in a Presidential election, things get fuzzy. A new President Maduro is likely to make few changes as long as Chavez is around. Whether Maduro changes or not Ministers is harder to predict. Given that he is expected to be more pragmatic, he may switch personalities around in order not to ruffle the boat, such as moving Merentes to Finance and separating the two Ministries (Wishful thinking?). Given Maduro’s statement that the exchange controls can be improved, it is clear that he has some strong thoughts on the matter. But Chavez will likely be watching over him.
Once Chavez is too ill to interfere, all bets will be off. Maduro will start trying to consolidate power, moving his pieces in and pushing his enemies out. The only puzzle at this time is who are Maduro’s friends within the military. The military has too many different factions and Maduro has never been identified with any of them.
And the military is likely the biggest wild card of all. Absent Chavez, it is difficult to predict how they will react to a Maduro Presidency.
Eventually, Maduro is more likely to go his own way and impose his own style and agenda. And while he is believed to be more pro Cuban than many civilians, he is likely to go the opposite way. His weakness is that he lacks popularity, he knows that he will have to fix the economy to stay in power and only focusing all of the resources in Venezuela, will he truly be able to do that. Beyond that, it will be his economic advisers, once he decides to fly solo, that will determine the course of his economic policies. Talk about the picture being fuzzy!
Of course, Capriles may yet win. He needs the landslide on Sunday and then to forget about taking a vacation for Christmas. Unfortunately, most of the opposition leaders are likely to go away and it is unlikely that the MUD will have a plan in place by the beginning of January to counteract Chavez’ strategy in time.
It may be all for the better. Let Chavismo be in charge of the economic adjustment to correct the distortions they created. It will unfortunately leave voters with the image that Chavez was invincible and he is sorely missed, but it will also open the way, in the end, for a different kind of Government and different type of plans for the country.