CARACAS - Venezuelans vote Sunday in state elections overshadowed by President Hugo Chavez’s latest and seemingly toughest battle against cancer.
The balloting for governors of the 23 states in the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves will be a test for Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader Chavez beat in presidential elections in October. Capriles, governor of populous Miranda state that includes part of Caracas, is seeking re-election and a consolidated status as leader of an array of parties that oppose the garrulous former paratrooper who has thoroughly dominated this nation since first being elected in 1999. Chavez underwent surgery Tuesday in Havana, his fourth cancer operation since being diagnosed last year, which came in addition to all the chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Hugo Chavez’s first words after emerging from surgery were “How are my (Venezuelan) people?” according to officials, who proclaimed here that the ailing leader is on the road to recovery. Venezuela’s Information Minister Ernesto Villegas told reporters that Chavez spoke with family members immediately after an operation to control bleeding after his cancer surgery earlier this week, and that his recovery was proceeding “satisfactorily.” The government says he has now spoken to his family but the surgery saw complications and Chavez faces a tough recovery. His inauguration is January 10.
But Chavez’s handpicked political heir, former bus driver turned foreign minister and vice president, Nicolas Maduro, is gingerly warning people of the prospect of Chavez becoming incapacitated, or worse, and to be ready for it.
The government is keeping mum on where in his body Chavez is afflicted with cancer, or exactly how bad it is.
In the elections, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela is seeking to wrest away opposition strongholds like Miranda and the oil-producing state of Zulia in the northwest.
Chavez’s party now controls 15 states, while the opposition holds seven and one is independent.
The ruling party has deployed 180,000 volunteer observers.
For Capriles, there are two big issues at stake: in the short term, his job as governor of Miranda. After losing the presidential election by a 10-point margin, he also needs to strengthen his status as opposition leader in case there is another presidential election soon.
That would happen if Chavez is not fit to be inaugurated January 10 - the ceremony is etched in stone and cannot be postponed - or dies in the first four years of his six-year term.
Anticipating such a scenario, Chavez gave Maduro de facto presidential power before leaving for Cuba and said Maduro should be the ruling party candidate in the event of another presidential poll.
Capriles has accused the government of trying to persuade people to vote pro-Chavez out of sympathy for their ailing leader.
Maduro has played Chavez’s role in the campaign, attending rallies in his place.
With some 17.4 million people eligible to vote, polling stations open at 1030 GMT and close at 2230 GMT.
Results are expected between two and five hours after polls close, the election commission told AFP.
Some 140,000 police and soldiers will provide security.