CARACAS (Reuters) - “Vampires” and “necrophiliacs” were just some of the epithets President Hugo Chavez’s allies had repeatedly thrown at opponents speculating about his possible demise.
Yet with his unprecedented admission over the weekend that cancer could end his 14-year rule, a taboo has been lifted and opposition leaders know they may have another chance soon of derailing his socialist revolution in the OPEC nation.
“We’re working on all possible scenarios - but one thing’s clear, it has to be the Venezuelan people (not Chavez) who decide their future,” opposition leader Maria Corina Machado told Reuters after a strategy session with colleagues on Monday.
Still licking wounds from their latest defeat by Chavez in an October presidential vote, the opposition had been focused exclusively on state elections on Sunday, hoping to at least retain the seven governorships of Venezuela’s 23 that they control.
But Chavez’s trip to Cuba for new cancer surgery after naming a preferred successor should he succumb to the disease has potentially enhanced the opposition’s opportunity.
Venezuela’s constitution stipulates a new election must be called within 30 days if Chavez is incapacitated, setting the stage for a new showdown in the fiercely polarized South American nation.
Without Chavez, the most likely scenario would be an election between Chavez’s nominee, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition’s flag bearer Henrique Capriles, who won 45 percent of the vote when he ran unsuccessfully against the president in October.
Past polls show Capriles is more popular than all of Chavez’s main allies. But Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who is also Chavez’s foreign minister, is the most popular among them and would gain from the personal anointment of a man who commands cult-like support among many in Venezuela.
“It’s obvious that if you compare Maduro and Capriles head-to-head, today or before, Capriles is without doubt a much stronger leader, evidenced by his 45-percent vote share against the maximum leader,” local analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.
“But if an election occurs soon after an emotionally dramatic event (like Chavez’s death), then you’re not comparing Capriles with Maduro but with the emotion unleashed by such a loss,” he added, citing Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s popularity surge when her husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner died in 2010.
For now, opposition leaders are lining up to wish Chavez well and avoid any appearance of exploiting his health.
They are not pulling their punches, however, in criticizing the secrecy around his condition, the decision to be treated in Cuba rather than Venezuela, and his attempt to name a successor.
“Venezuela is not a monarchy,” Capriles pointedly said.
Before anything else, Capriles, 40, must retain his post as Miranda governor in Sunday’s election if he wants to remain the opposition’s obvious presidential candidate-in-waiting.
After a year of criss-crossing Venezuela, the energetic Capriles took 6.5 million votes in October - not enough to win, but the opposition’s highest-ever total in more than a dozen polls since Chavez took power in 1999.
Chavez has sent Elias Jaua, a former vice president and rock-throwing student activist, to challenge him, knowing defeat for Capriles would humiliate him and possibly even finish his career. As always in Venezuela, polls vary widely - one puts Capriles 22 percentage points up, another has Jaua five ahead.
Maduro’s easy-going manner and working-class roots appeal to Chavez’s traditional supporters, but it is their loyalty to Chavez himself that may be a more powerful factor.
“I don’t believe for one minute that our commander is going to die,” said Ezequiel Lopez, 44, a farm worker in Chavez’s rural home state Barinas. “But should that happen, I will vote for anyone he says I should. He knows best, and I will obey him. If it’s Nicolas, so be it.”
Though absent in Cuba for his surgery, Chavez loomed large all over Venezuela this week - from corner-shop chatter, to banners and songs in squares where his supporters gathered, and emotional spots played over and over on state TV in his honor.
Chavez has built a highly-centralized political system around his flamboyant personality and micro-managing style, leading foes to accuse him of fostering a personality cult.
Should he be incapacitated or die, supporters are sure to keep his image and memory prominent, while opponents will hope the unwieldy coalition of military and socialist leaders within “Chavismo” implodes without its main cohesive factor.
The same, though, could happen to the opposition, which spent the first decade of Chavez’s rule crippled by internal fighting that Chavez skillfully exploited. Opposition leaders finally joined forces in 2009, and the alliance has held together - but there are clear ideological differences between them.
“Just look at all the different groups in the MUD, there’s a full spectrum from right to left,” said a Western diplomat in Caracas, referring to the opposition Democratic Unity coalition’s 20 or so political groupings.
“Do you think they would be together if it wasn’t for Chavez? Their hatred of him is the only thing holding them together. Without him, it’s a totally new scenario, and the different egos and points of view will rise to the fore again.”
Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray