By Marisela Castillo Apitz
President Hugo Chávez is eyeing a third term as the Venezuela’s leader, but his challenges are not just his opponents.
Since the president’s cancer diagnosis was announced last June, questions over the 57-year-old’s health and ability to hold office have increased. But Chávez, who first took office in 1999 and is eligible for a third term after pushing for a constitutional amendment allowing indefinite consecutive reelection, brushes off those concerns.
“I have medical, scientific, human, romantic, political reasons to stay at the head of the government,” Chávez said a month after his cancer was revealed to the public. “I haven’t thought for a moment about resigning from the presidency. If there were reasons, I would do it. I am the candidate of the revolution and I am absolutely sure that the people will re-elect me for the 2013-2019 term. I am resolved to make it to 2031.”
The head of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela now has to deal with a major concern ahead of the Oct. 7 election: what if his health gets worse?
Venezuelan political analyst José Vicente Carrasquero said the party needs to think long and hard about Chávez’s health and said there are two differing approaches among his followers.
“On one hand, some are thinking that the president is the only leader and that there has been no reason to think about a replacement, but others say that they should prepare for a transition that would imply a new leader.”
Carrasquero said Chávez’s personality is not helping matters. He said he is “one of those people who rarely think that one day they will no longer exist,” so he hasn’t prepared for a successor.
“When the president’s circle is reviewed, we realize that there isn’t anyone who could have his approval levels,” he said.
This situation could be crippling for the party, since there isn’t anyone who could stand up for the “political process that Chávez has developed and maintained.” Another challenge is that if a new leader begins to emerge in the party, he or she is immediately fired and considered a traitor, a sign of Chávez’s authoritarianism.
“The only one calling the shots in that organization is Chávez,” he said, noting that internal elections to define the 2012 and 2013 regional elections have not been announced yet.
Chavismo without Chávez?
But other analysts warn that Chávez’s political project is too personal and destined for failure if the leader is not present anymore.
Venezuelan political analyst Nicmer Evans notes that even the party’s members were second-guessing Chávez’s personalism and that even the president recognized that he had to “rectify” his “hyper-leadership.”
“Even when the revolutionary process was born from a personalist leadership, I think that it has evolved over time,” Evans said, adding that it may not matter whether Chávez is still at the helm.
Still, Evans said there is no clear leader that could replace Chávez currently.
Evans pointed to some cases in the region, such as that of Juan Domingo Perón, who ruled Argentina from 1946-55 and 1973-74, whose Peronist political movement and Justicialist Party are still popular in the country.
In his opinion, Chávez has not taken things to far, because his name is prohibited from being published on public works projects, and streets and plazas had not been named after him. A Caracas neighborhood, however, inaugurated a plaza named after Chávez, “because the people wanted it.”
If Chavez’s project were “as personal as some describe it”, said Evans, “there would have not been any kind of interest in the development of committees on water, community councils” and other spaces of popular power.
Informal start to campaign
Chávez’s main opponent, Henrique Capriles, is furiously campaigning across Venezuela. Some polls show a 20 percentage-point lead for Chávez, but others show a tie, such as the March 22 poll by Consultores 21, showing a one-percentage-point lead by Chávez.
Should Chávez not run, pro-Chávez respondents said they would vote for current Vice President Elías Jaua, followed by Adán Chávez, the president’s brother and governor of the Barinas state. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello could also be alternatives.
But other pollsters, like Hinterlaces, had different results. One published March 5 by the company gave Chávez an 18-point lead, while Grupo de Investigación Siglo XXI said days later that his lead was 33 points.