Earlier this month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that his cancer had returned and urged supporters to back Vice President Nicolás Maduro in the event that he is forced to leave office. In regional elections on Sunday, Chávez allies trumped the opposition in 20 out of 23 gubernatorial races, though leading opposition figure Henrique Capriles was again elected governor of Miranda state. What are the likely outcomes if Chávez were to suddenly leave office? Is Capriles well-positioned to remain the top opposition leader? How would Maduro fare in a special election for the presidency against Henrique Capriles? What role did Chávez's health play in the regional elections, and how is it affecting the country's economic prospects?

Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: "The Dec. 16 gubernatorial elections constituted a major setback for the opposition, one that was surprising in its magnitude and that does not bode well for national-level success in the near future. In political terms, the re-election of Henrique Capriles in Miranda state and of his former vice presidential candidate, Henry Falcón, in Lara constituted the only good news in an otherwise bleak scenario. Capriles' ability to hold onto Miranda, despite the enormous effort of the PSUV and former vice president Elías Jaua to defeat him (and thereby end his political career) suggests that he is the only viable candidate to confront Nicolás Maduro in a new national contest. But the constitutional requirement that new elections be held within 30 days of a president dying in office or becoming too incapacitated to govern poses enormous challenges. It is an extremely short period of time in which to organize another national campaign. More important, the passions generated by Chávez's death or resignation would mobilize his loyal and fervent base in support of his anointed successor. A new election will serve, as have so many in the past, as a referendum on Chávez's rule; but this time there will be the added element of a referendum on his legacy. Amid all the heightened emotions, it is hard to imagine anything but a resounding Maduro victory."
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