* Opposition leader Capriles fights to retain governorship
* Barometer of support for both political forces
* Though in Cuba, Chavez's image everywhere for vote
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Dec 16 Venezuelans vote on Sunday in
state elections that will define the future of opposition leader
Henrique Capriles and test political forces ahead of a possible
new presidential vote if Hugo Chavez is incapacitated by cancer.
The vote for 23 state governorships, of which the opposition
controls seven, has been overshadowed by the president's battle
to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba.
Yet it will have major implications for the unfolding
political drama in the South American OPEC nation with the
world's largest oil reserves.
Capriles, 40, must retain the governorship of Miranda if he
is to remain the opposition's presidential candidate-in-waiting,
while both sides will want a good showing to create momentum in
case of a new showdown over who replaces Chavez.
"This is the best indication of how well the opposition will
fare in an upcoming contest for the presidency between Henrique
Capriles and designated Chavez dauphin Vice President Nicolas
Maduro," said Russell Dallen of Caracas-based BBO Financial
Whatever the private machinations going on, in public Maduro
and other senior officials are focused only on Chavez's recovery
after complications from Tuesday's operation in Havana.
It was a fourth surgery for the socialist leader since he
was diagnosed with cancer in the pelvic region in mid-2011.
After re-election in October, Chavez, 58, is due to start a
new term on Jan. 10, but has named Maduro as his preferred
successor should he be incapacitated.
That would trigger a new presidential poll within 30 days.
In its latest update, the government said Chavez had spoken
to his family on Friday - possibly for the first time since
surgery - and was recovering "satisfactorily" though slowly.
Few medical details have been released, so speculation is
rife that Chavez may be in a life-threatening situation in
Havana's Cimeq hospital with both a difficult post-operation
recovery and a possible spreading of the cancer.
In such a charged atmosphere, campaigning for Sunday's vote
has taken a backseat to Catholic masses, prayer meetings and
vigils across the nation for Chavez.
Maduro has wept in public, state media are replaying images
of Chavez round-the-clock, and various government candidates
held closing rallies simply playing the president's voice.
The sympathy factor could benefit Chavez's candidates and
offset the disadvantage of losing his charismatic presence on
the campaign trail in advance.
"Without wishing to be triumphalist, we have big chances of
winning the 23 governorships and that is the biggest support we
can give Chavez," said his brother Adan Chavez, who is seeking
re-election in their hometown state of Barinas.
Still smarting from defeat in October, the opposition hopes
voters will focus on grassroots issues and punish the government
for power-cuts, pot-holed roads, corruption scandals, violent
crime and runaway inflation.
"I put my life at the service of Miranda and Venezuela,"
Capriles said in his closing rally. "I'm not here to stay in
power but to make a dream (of national change) come true."
Though widely expected to retain his Miranda seat, Capriles
faces a well-financed challenge from senior Chavez ally Elias
Jaua, a former vice president. If he defeats Capriles, it would
leave the opposition in disarray and possibly spark in-fighting
over who would be its next presidential candidate.
Two other opposition governors, Pablo Perez and Henri
Falcon, are obvious possibilities. But first they too must
retain their posts to maintain credibility, and they do not have
the national recognition Capriles achieved during his
unsuccessful run for the presidency in October.
Despite losing, he won the opposition's largest share - 6.5
million votes, or 45 percent - against Chavez, and impressed
Venezuelans with his energetic style, visits to the remotest
corners, and attention to their day-to-day issues.
"In the unlikely event that Capriles loses, he would
probably have no chance of running for the presidency again,"
political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said.
The mid-December timing of the vote could count against the
opposition, many of whose middle-class supporters often take
advantage of school holidays to travel.