WASHINGTON — Venezuela’s political future is clouded by unpredictable, interdependent variables. President Hugo Chavez’s health is not the only uncertainty. Venezuelans debate whether their president will leave office before or after the Oct. 7 presidential elections.
They ask, if he goes,
who in the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) will fill Chavez’s role? They
wonder whether the October vote will be held on time, if at all; whether the
opposition candidate can prevail; and whether the Chavistas will respect an
Chavez has attempted to dispel rumors of his demise, but
his appearances are infrequent and few believe that his cancer is in remission.
Chavez’s physical condition and the future of Venezuelan politics are of considerable
concern to hemispheric neighbors and to Venezuelans.
Three scenarios are currently being discussed:
• Chavez, or his successor, secures a credible victory in
October, or a subsequent “special election” that the Constitution requires
should the president become incapacitated in the first four years of his term
• The opposition wins; or
• Allies of Chavez cling to power by announcing a state
of emergency and canceling the elections.
A guessing game emerges: What are the chances for the
opposition party’s success? Who might succeed Chavez? The president’s cancer
has undermined his aura of invincibility, spurred a power struggle among
potential PSUV successors and raised the question whether the opposition party,
Coalition for a Democratic Unity (MUD), can remain united, absent Chavez.
MUD has rallied behind Henrique Capriles Radonski, the
former governor of Miranda state who gained 64.2 percent support in the
presidential primary this past February. He has stressed reconciliation, unity
and non-retaliation against Chavez supporters.
However, Capriles’ growing popularity has not peeled off
the almost 60 percent of likely voters who favor Chavez. This is because the
poor depend upon the "misiones" (welfare programs) and 8 million
Venezuelans rely on jobs in the government or in state-owned enterprises.
Anticipating Chavez’s incapacity the PSUV is now probing
alternative candidates to become his successor. If Chavez becomes incapacitated
over a prolonged period, Vice President Elias Jaua would assume the presidency
for 90 days. A simple vote in the National Assembly could extend this period.
According to Article 233, were Chavez to be totally incapacitated, or die, Jaua
would complete Chavez’s six-year term as president.
Jaua, however, is considered politically weak; others vie
to replace him. Brother Adan Chavez is a possible candidate, but the
Constitution forbids a family member from succession. Foreign Minister Nicolas
Maduro and Speaker of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello are possible
inheritors. Chavez also appointed General Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva as
defense minister. Both Cabello and Rangel joined Chavez in the 1992 attempted
coup d’etat and are known as uncompromisingly adverse toward the opposition.
Opposition leader Capriles has succeeded in holding the
MUD together. According to a March Datanalisis poll, Capriles held a favorable
31.4 percent of the vote compared to 44.7 percent for Chavez. A more recent
July poll resulted in a similar split. This gives Chavez a comfortable lead.
However, beyond Chavez, other potential PSUV candidates all score lower than
Capriles at the polls.
It is questionable whether the 113,000 member Venezuelan
armed forces would support a Capriles victory. Senior officers have indicated
their respect for the Constitution and the legitimate electoral outcome.
Furthermore, senior commanding officers are said to be divided in their loyalty
to Chavez, making the armed forces an unpredictable factor should the
An alternative scenario exists: Were the polls to
indicate a likely majority vote for Capriles and the MUD, those close to Chavez
could use the Chavista gangs who rule the streets in many parts of Venezuela to
provoke widespread unrest. This could also occur after a Capriles victory in
October. Both scenarios would justify the declaration of a state of emergency
("estado de conmocion"). In the case of internal conflict, Article
338 of the Venezuelan Constitution allows for the suspension of civil liberties
for up to 180 days. This would give sufficient time for a caretaker government
to postpone the election.
If Chavez were to win and become incapacitated before
inauguration, a new presidential election would need to be held within 30 days.
Before the winner of this new election is inaugurated, Speaker Cabello would
assume the presidency. Cabello would not have an interest in violence, but
rather the stability of the regime and the maintenance of the status quo.
Even if Capriles is permitted to win and assume office,
the PSUV will continue to hold a simple majority in the National Assembly until
2016. PSUV legislators would likely vote against Capriles and his MUD party
reformers, suggesting stalemate and continued PSUV influence on public affairs.
As presidential candidate, Capriles must calm the
provocateurs that seek to justify an estado de conmocion. Were he to win, he
might offer an amnesty to those Chavistas who have enriched themselves through
legitimate business deals. However, he need not extend amnesty to those who have
participated flagrantly in the drug business.
With support from Colombia and Brazil, Capriles must move
skillfully and swiftly to assert the rule of law. Capriles will need the
support of the international community to assure that his victory at the polls
can be guaranteed. A Nicaraguan style government could emerge in which Capriles
occupies the presidency while allowing some former officials to retain senior
government positions. The tenuous coalition worked for Nicaragua in 1991, and
the same could work for Venezuela in 2012.
Chavismo will probably not die, but without its standard
bearer, it can wither away so long as selected Chavistas are given space for
**Diana Negroponte is a nonresident senior fellow at the
Brookings Institute who focuses on Latin America.