CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Smarting after a bruising loss in state elections, Venezuela's opposition will now be forced to reassess its strategy and rebuild quickly to prepare for presidential elections that many expect could be called to replace ailing President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez's bleak outlook after his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba last week appears to have galvanized his supporters, making Vice President Nicolas Maduro a tough candidate to beat in new elections, which under the constitution would be called within 30 days if the president dies, is incapacitated or steps down.
"It is a 30-day period that is going to be infused with all of the heightened emotion around Chavez's departure," said Cynthia Arnson, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "The sympathy vote and the fervor of the Chavista base to come out and vote for the continuation of the revolution will be very high."
Sunday's strong showing will likely give the president's confidants a freer hand to deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
Arnson said she expects that Chavez's blessing of Maduro, amid an outpouring of emotion over the president's departure, would be a powerful ingredient for an election campaign.
"For the love of the nation, for the love of Chavez, we're going to unite our forces for the battles to come," Maduro said, without elaborating.
The government has spent heavily on social programs and new public housing projects around the country, with the spending boosting Chavez's image ahead of his re-election win in October. In the coming months, however, the government is expected to face new constraints on spending with the country's currency having slipped on the black market and its debt growing.
"With all its economic difficulties, the government will be hard-pressed to create new programs in the coming months. But it doesn't really need to," Arnson said. "Chavez's incapacity or death will trigger a tremendous outpouring of emotion, some of which is directly rooted in the social benefits that people have already received."
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