Chavez demonstrated with his electoral win in the Oct. 7 election that, despite a crumbling infrastructure and paralyzed private sector, he maintains a very strong support base. However, the question remains whether there is a Bolivarian leader able to fill Chavez's shoes. Throughout his presidency, Chavez has made a point of ensuring that strong potential rivals were undermined and that his inner circle of loyalists worked for him alone. That policy strengthened Chavez as a leader but undermined potential successors. Over the course of the past year and a half, during which time the president has been ill, speculation has abounded, with Maduro appearing as the most likable and likely candidate to succeed the ailing Chavez.
In the wake of the election, Maduro has been working in conjunction with the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, to run the country. If Chavez officially steps down, they will have to work together even more closely despite ideological and personal differences. Cabello has stronger ties to the military and a more pragmatic stance on economic policy, while Maduro, although not dogmatic, is more ideologically close to Cuba and to the socialism associated with Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution. He is more credible as an ideological successor to Chavez and has a great deal more public appeal than Cabello, whose past is stained with scandals. Nevertheless, Maduro is not a strong politician and derives his credibility from Chavez. Without Chavez in place to balance competing interests among the inner circle politicians, Maduro will need Cabello as an ally.
Even if Chavez is deathly ill now, he may wait to officially step down until after the Jan. 10 inauguration. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, if the president-elect is incapacitated during the period between the election and the inauguration, the head of the National Assembly takes power and calls for snap elections within 30 days. However, if the president is incapacitated after the inauguration or in the first four years of the term, the vice president takes power and presides over snap elections. This means that if Chavez died or stepped down ahead of the inauguration, Cabello, not Chavez's designated successor, would take over.
Although Chavez's health was not a topic in the media in the lead-up to the October election, its rapid deterioration since that time makes it very likely that he was delaying treatment to give the appearance of a recovery. Assuming that Chavez either chooses to step down or passes away, his electoral win over a briefly united opposition has made Maduro a stronger candidate than he would have been against former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski in October. By holding out through the election, Chavez has proved that the opposition in Venezuela remains less popular than himself. His successor inherits that win against a demoralized opposition.
The Venezuelan opposition is an amalgam of previously competitive groups that Chavez defeated in 1999. He then assumed the presidency and changed the rules of politics in Venezuela. Though united under the "Table of Unity" that was formed ahead of this year's election, the opposition is notoriously fractious and internally contentious. Its uniting behind Capriles was no easy task. This means the opposition will approach a possible second shot at the presidency from a weaker position after Capriles' loss, and it will be challenging for it to unite at all. Though he made a relatively strong showing in October with the support of the united opposition, Capriles may be too weak to unite the opposition this time around. Although polls in Venezuela are unreliable, there appears to be some doubt about whether Capriles can win re-election as Miranda governor on Dec. 16 against former Vice President Elias Jaua.
No matter who the opposition puts up against Chavez's successor, it will likely be unity or lack thereof from the ruling party that will determine the outcome of the election. This is Chavez's first official designation of a successor after more than a year of speculation, and whether his United Socialist Party of Venezuela can unite behind Maduro will be a test of the strength of the institutions that he built during more than a decade of holding power.