Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez remains in a Caracas military hospital, prompting continued speculation in Venezuela and abroad about eventual succession and concerns over political stability—as well as uncertainty about who is in charge.
The president’s uncertain situation comes at a time of significant social and economic difficulty in Venezuela. The government’s announcement on February 2 of a 32 percent currency devaluation and the elimination of the bond-exchange market rate is likely to generate further inflationary pressures and shortages of essential goods. Meanwhile, the opposition is trying to build political capital over growing popular discontent against the devaluation, which will affect the purchasing capacity of Venezuelans.
If Chávez dies—whether in the first four years of his term or the last two—Venezuela’s weak political institutions will be gravely tested. Here are the guidelines set out in Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution should any of the following three scenarios take place:
If Chávez regains his health: Taking the government’s official announcements at face value, Chávez could recover his health and continue as president. Pending any new health-related developments, this would mean less in terms of political instability, but Chávez’ idiosyncratic rule and mismanagement of the economy could pose formidable problems for Venezuela in the long run.
If Chávez passes away or becomes incapacitated in the last two years of his six-year term: Under this scenario, Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolás Maduro would finish out the remainder of the presidential term before new elections are called.
If Chávez passes away or becomes incapacitated in the first four years of the six-year constitutional term: Vice-President Maduro would replace Chávez until the Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council –CNE) calls for a new election within 30 days.
One key issue under the last scenario is how the Supreme Court will interpret the scheduling of "30 days" to proceed with an election. The court could decide that an election must take place within 30 days, or it could decide that an election needs only to be called within 30 days.
In Venezuela, where democratic institutions and the rule of law are weak, such a technicality could lead to an institutional crisis. This could trigger divisions in the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV) between those willing to call for elections quickly, and those who want to take advantage of the control they exercise in the judiciary and the National Assembly to postpone elections for as long as possible. The latter group will hope that Chávez supporters get used to seeing Maduro in charge and allow him time to build his political capital and develop a strong Chávez-style nationalist rhetoric to build the power base and voter recognition he needs to bid for the presidency in his own right.
Chavista factions appear to have rallied behind Maduro’s leadership. This includes the powerful faction of Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly and deputy head of the ruling PSUV. Along with Maduro, Cabello had been touted as a possible successor to Chávez. Cabello, who operates as a de facto union representative for several factions of the armed forces, is a retired military official who participated alongside Chávez in the failed February 1992 military coup against the democratic government of then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989–1993).
Cabello is seen as the most likely political figure to gain support from the armed forces, which are highly likely to play a key role in an eventual succession. The military is the only institution capable of ensuring that the electoral authority calls for elections, although its impartiality is doubtful. The military would also be crucial to ensure stability, but the armed forces remain complex, highly politicized and heterogeneous, making their behavior and effectiveness in the event of a crisis difficult to predict. For now, Maduro and Cabello are working to hold the chavismo movement together in what has been perceived as a marriage of convenience.
If elections are called, Maduro would run as the PSUV candidate and it is highly likely that Henrique Capriles—representing the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Coalition of Democratic Unity—MUD) would run again as the opposition candidate. Chávez won the presidential election last year with 55 percent of the vote to Capriles’ 44 percent. According to a February 17 poll by private pollster Hinterlaces, Maduro now holds 50 percent of voter support, compared to Capriles’ 36 percent.
Despite this, the outcome of an eventual election is far from settled. An election without Chávez could help the opposition’s prospects, especially if shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods continue. However, democratic institutions weakened by years of Chávez’ dominance and preference for "revolutionary institutions" may prove unable to cope with Chávez' absence or an opposition victory if an election is called.
The test is how long the administration can justify its tenure without further legal ratification. This would depend on how efficiently the government is able to deal with the economy and guarantee the allocation of funds for cash transfer projects and social programs. After all, these programs are the bedrock of its support.
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