Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s solemn appearance on national television on December 8 may have marked more than his departure for a fourth round of cancer treatment in Cuba. His designation of Vice President and former Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro as his successor in the event he could not continue his duties indicated an initial farewell from politics as well – with wide-ranging implications in- and outside Venezuela. Chávez asked “with all my heart” that his supporters elect Maduro to continue the Bolivarian revolution in the event of his death or inability to continue his mandate, with a clear eye to the constitutional requirement for emergency elections to be held within just 30 days should the president die or become incapacitated within the first four years of the term. On Tuesday, Maduro announced that the president was recuperating after a six-hour procedure in Havana. He did not declare a sure and speedy recovery but rather asked for Venezuelans’ prayers.
Speculation about the domestic scenario, including struggles within the ruling party, is intense. Maduro’s most frequently mentioned rival to succeed Chávez is Diosdado Cabello, who was also alongside Chávez as he made the announcement last week. While Maduro and Cabello both have had years of government experience and demonstrated political loyalty, questions remain about whether they – or anyone else – could replicate Chávez’s connection with poor voters and keep their weak political party together. Informed speculation about the long-term impact on the region, if the succession stumbles, ranges from predictions of a cutoff of subsidies and subsidized oil, that would destabilize Cuba, Nicaragua and others to, among those who never saw Chávez as effective regionally, shrugged shoulders.
An even greater unknown is how well the opposition would do in the event of a snap election. It is far from certain that these forces would re-unite around former candidate Henrique Capriles so shortly after he lost the October 2012 election. The new system of primary elections that produced the single candidate last year would be difficult to replicate so quickly. With both the ruling and opposition parties vulnerable to tensions and splits, a scenario of instability could easily result. If Chávez’s health permits, he could conceivably resign the presidency and oversee elections that, although probably skewed, will help maintain the institutional order. If Venezuela is indeed on the brink of a succession process, the fortunes of both Chavismo and the opposition, and indeed of the Venezuelan population, will depend in large part on the capacity of both sides to maintain unity around alternative candidates for the Presidency.