CARACAS Venezuela's opposition says the ballot box, not the clutch of cancer, offers the best chance to unseat the president who has mocked its leaders for years.
The rollercoaster drama of President Hugo Chavez's health woes has kept Venezuelans riveted for a month.
Instead of jumping on the president's illness like jackals on a wounded lion, most leading opponents of the 56-year-old Venezuelan leader are coolly keeping their sights and energies fixed on a presidential election due next year.
"We have a route and we're going to follow it," Caracas metropolitan mayor Antonio Ledezma, a strident Chavez critic, told Reuters hours after the president returned unexpectedly from Cuba after having a cancerous tumor removed.
Showing notable restraint in a nation where partisan invective has often gone to vicious lengths, opposition leaders have shied away from comments on Chavez's illness that could be construed as capitalizing on his misfortune.
Instead, representatives of all political colors in the notoriously fractious opposition coalition, who have often snarled at each other as well as Chavez, have been conspicuously united in wishing him a speedy recovery.
They seem to scent that even before his health emergency and secretive convalescence in Cuba, the 2012 vote held out their best opportunity in years to end the 12-year-old rein of a leader who daily belittled them as "squalid" coup-mongers.
With speculation still rife about how much post-operative treatment Chavez needs and how actively he can govern, analysts saw his surprise homecoming on Monday as a conscious move to prevent any undermining of his leadership or electoral base.
"Going back is a way to settle things down and buy some time," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Before Chavez's return, analysts saw a political opportunity for the opposition created by the unexpected health problems of a hyperactive president who had always projected an aura of physical and political invincibility.
"Have you ever seen Superman sick?", opposition youth leader Yon Goicochea quipped in comments to a local newspaper.
But even if such an opportunity exists, opposition leaders are adamant that votes, not cancer cells, are the best antidote to Chavez's self-styled leftist Bolivarian Revolution, which has changed the politics and economy of the OPEC oil producer.
"The government is the same with Chavez in Cuba or Chavez in Venezuela. The change of government will come when we have presidential elections (in 2012)," said Henrique Capriles Radonski, the youthful governor of Venezuela's second most populous state of Miranda who is the frontrunner to become the opposition contender to Chavez in the presidential race.
CRIME EPIDEMIC, POLICY MALADIES
"Venezuela's problems don't stem from the situation of the president's health; Venezuela's problems are due to the inefficiency of the government," Capriles added.
He and other foes say their prospects of winning next year have increased while problems like crime, power outages and poverty persist despite billions of oil dollars spent on social projects.
They point to 2010 parliamentary elections that gave them 40 percent of the national assembly seats, a useful beachhead against a tide of the Chavez poll victories since 1999.
"Today, the majority of Venezuelans want a change ... before the announcement of the president's sickness, the conditions were already there for a change to occur in 2012," said Leopoldo Lopez, another veteran opponent of Chavez.
Lopez, blocked by the government for running for Caracas mayor in 2008 because he faced corruption charges he says were trumped up, says it is the pro-Chavez bloc which needs to worry about their leader's health, not the opposition. Rumors have surfaced of tensions and rivalries in the Chavista camp.
Showing a unity of purpose not seen in recent years, Chavez opponents have agreed to hold a key primary in February to select a candidate to run against him and Lopez said some 4 million people were expected to take part.
The opposition decision not to campaign on the health issue makes political sense, analysts believe.
"We don't think the "health issue" in itself will decide the election. It's Chavez's gross policy mismanagement of high inflation/low growth and failed promises after 12 years in office that will decide the election," Siobhan Morden, head of Latin America Strategy at global banker RBS, told Reuters.
"The opposition doesn't even have to mention his health (in fact they'll probably avoid it). All they have to discuss is his failed policies," Morden said in emailed comments.
Ironically, the opposition may need Chavez as much as the president's own followers. He is the big electoral foe that can cement their unity and focus, whereas a diminished Chavez or weaker replacement might unleash the kind of leadership struggle that has rent opposition ranks in the past.
"There could well be renewed risks of infighting and fractiousness in a opposition that is, after all, notably heterogeneous," Shifter said.
Few doubt that even an ailing Chavez remains a formidable foe.
The president's appearance before a delirious crowd outside his palace on Monday after his return from Cuba -- wearing the red paratrooper's beret that is the symbol of his leftist and militaristic leadership -- showed he may be shortening his speeches, but not hanging up his revolutionary boots yet.
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Eric Walsh)