Political chasm to follow Chávez send-off

The coffin of deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is driven through the streets of Caracas. Photograph: Carlos Carcia/Reuters

The coffin of deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez is driven through the streets of Caracas. Photograph: Carlos Carcia/Reuters

Thu, Mar 7, 2013, 00:00

Analysis:Such was his dominance of Venezuela’s political scene during 14 years in power, it was perhaps inevitable that the country’s first steps following the death of Hugo Chávez would be uncertain.

According to Chávez’s own constitution, on his death power should have passed to the head of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who would have been charged with organising new elections within 30 days.

However, on Tuesday night, foreign minister Elías Juau said executive authority now rested with Venezuela’s vice-president, Nicolás Maduro. Juau promised elections but there has been no announcement on a possible date, which will probably have to wait until after tomorrow’s state funeral.

A former union leader Maduro represents the civilian, left-wing branch of the Bolivarian Revolution and is close to the Castro regime in Cuba. Before his final trip to Cuba for treatment on his cancer, Chávez told supporters in a televised address they were to vote for Maduro if he was unable to return to power. Juau’s statement on Tuesday could indicate that Chávez’s movement is rallying around his anointed candidate.

Alternatively, the disregard for constitutional propriety could indicate the ascendancy of Maduro’s supporters over the military men gathered around the ambitious Cabello. His exclusion from the interim executive power granted him by the constitution may have been designed to prevent these more nationalist elements from launching a power grab.

Seeking signs of division

The opposition will be desperate for signs of division within Chavismo’s ranks now that its leader is dead. Despite widespread corruption, violence and economic waste, it lost last October’s presidential election by 10 points – more than 1½ million votes – and knows winning a new contest will be difficult in the wake of what will be an emotional send-off for a leader who, for all his failings, placed the poor majority at the centre of the state’s concerns.

But the opposition would be foolish to assume chavismo will disintegrate without its founder to unify its competing components. These have strong motives to continue to work together.

Control of the state, and with it the country’s oil, for 14 years led to power and wealth for many leading Chavistas. Despite its claims to be socialist, the Bolivarian Revolution created many dubious fortunes. The so-called Boligarchs will be loath to account for this wealth should the opposition weaken their grip on the presidential palace and the control over the courts.

Rich political legacy

To help hold on to power they can mobilise a rich political legacy. For all his economic mismanagement and authoritarian traits, Chávez’s redistribution of the oil wealth to the country’s poor was electorally unbeatable in his lifetime. Peronism’s successes in Argentina in the decades after the death of its founder, Juan Domingo Perón, show how a charismatic leader’s legacy can help sustain a political movement long after he is gone.

As a candidate, Maduro will lack the Chávez charisma but so does Henrique Capriles, the man an ailing Chávez beat in October and who is most likely to be the opposition candidate in new elections. While hoping for divisions in the government ranks, Capriles must also keep his coalition together. It is a ragbag that includes corrupt traditional party bosses, right-wing neoliberals and left-wing groupings critical of Chávez who were only united in their desperation to bring to an end his grip on power.

The battle for power will be intense but the prize is dubious. The winner will control an enormous system of oil-financed patronage and an economic mess.