CARACAS Dec 13 Venezuelans put aside political differences on Thursday and prayed for ailing President Hugo Chavez, who is in delicate condition after a fourth operation for cancer that could cut short his mercurial 14-year rule.
The former soldier, who won re-election in the deeply polarized OPEC nation just two months ago, had a six-hour operation in Cuba on Tuesday after a third bout with cancer in his pelvic region.
The charismatic leader's downturn threatens to upend a self-styled socialist revolution that has divided voters.
Lavish spending of oil revenue has led millions to hail him as a modern-day liberator, while his concentration of power and attacks on private businesses have infuriated adversaries who call him a fledgling dictator.
But for now even some of his fierce opponents have voiced support for the ailing Chavez.
"The truth is that as Christians we have to wish that the president gets better," said opposition legislator Ismael Garcia, who also insisted the government provide more information about Chavez's condition. "I hope he improves and comes back to take on his responsibilities as head of state."
The president has refused to divulge the details of the cancer diagnosed in mid-2011 and has twice declared he was completely cured - only to later undergo more surgery.
The ashen faces of Cabinet ministers and somber tone of the terse official statements since the operation appear to suggest top government officials are preparing for the worst.
On Saturday, Chavez anointed Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his heir apparent in case he had to step down - the first time since he took office in 1999 that he has named a successor.
Chavez won re-election by a big margin in October and starts a new six-year term on Jan. 10. According to the constitution, if he is unable to do so, a new election must be held within 30 days.
"My only wish is that the president takes the reins of the country on January 10, 2013," said Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who lost to Chavez in October. "The country is filled with problems that need to be solved."
Maduro, a 50-year-old former union organizer and loyal Chavez disciple who is also seen as a pragmatic moderate, would be the ruling party's candidate.
Top military commanders, along with Cabinet ministers and an auditorium of officers, sang hymns on Wednesday in an emotional Mass to pray for the president's recovery.
But officials have also begun cautiously preparing people for the reality that he may not survive.
"At the same time as we pray, we should be ready to turn our sadness and pain into a force that can mobilize the people," said Aristobulo Isturiz, a top Chavez ally, at a rally of thousands of somber red-clad supporters.
State television has filled airwaves with teary-eyed praise for the cancer-stricken leader, with one spot featuring a woman calling Chavez "a second Jesus Christ."
Even if he dies, Chavez is likely to cast a long shadow over Venezuela's political landscape for years to come - not unlike Argentine leader Juan Peron, whose 1950s populism is still the ideological foundation of the country's dominant political party.
Elections shortly after the Venezuelan leader's death could create an awkward scenario for the opposition. Campaigning on day-to-day concerns such as crime and inflation would be difficult in such an emotionally-charged atmosphere.
The implications of Chavez's illness go far beyond Venezuela. Regional allies, most notably Cuba, have for years relied on him for subsidized oil and fuel shipments.
It could also slow the resurgence of the left in Latin America and weaken a global "anti-imperialist" alliance stretching as far as Syria and Iran that has sought to undermine the influence of the United States.
Energy companies are keenly eyeing events and hope that a change in government will lead to greater access to the country's vast crude reserves - the world's largest. Years of combative state takeovers have alienated major oil firms.
And investors that pack their portfolios with Venezuelan bonds, among the highest-yielding and most widely traded emerging market debt, are hoping for more fiscal responsibility after a year of blowout campaign spending.
The health saga has overshadowed elections for state governors on Sunday, in which the opposition hopes to retain seven of the country's 23 governorships. The key vote in that race will be Capriles' re-election bid in Miranda.
If he loses, half a dozen other opposition figures could emerge as candidates for the next presidential election, potentially fracturing the opposition bloc's fragile unity.
Polls for the Miranda race are mixed, with one showing Capriles way ahead and another giving his opponent, Chavez protege and former vice president Elias Jaua a 5 percentage point lead.