Venezuela: Chavez Relapse?

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE

The news that President Hugo Chávez will undergo surgery again for a possible recurrence of cancer has injected new uncertainty into re-election prospects and could benefit the opposition as it prepares to challenge him in the October presidential election. However, it is far too soon to count out the president in his bid for another term. Unless his illness worsens significantly, he still holds enormous advantages over his opponent.

There has been lingering doubt about the state of Mr Chávez’s health since he first underwent treatment for cancer in Cuba in mid-2011. He has repeatedly declared himself “cancer-free”, but there nonetheless has been much speculation about his illness (he has never disclosed the exact nature of the cancer or released any medical reports) and a possible successor should he be unable to continue in office. Yet he has forged ahead with his run for a third six-year term, with the full backing of his party, Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV).

However, on February 21st he disclosed that he had made a previously unreported trip to Cuba to medical tests and would be returning in the days ahead for another operation to remove a potentially malignant lesion—all while still insisting on the soundness of his health. Mr Chávez’s recent media appearances and his marathon nine-hour-long speech to the National Assembly in January certainly attested to his vigour. However, the possible return of his cancer will re-ignite and intensify doubts about his political future.

Challenging race

Even without his health problems, this was sure to be the toughest electoral campaign Mr Chávez has faced since coming to office in 1999. For the first time, opposition parties have united behind a strong, viable candidate, Enrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state. Nearly 3m Venezuelans voted in the first-ever opposition primary on February 12th, in which five candidates competed. Mr Capriles, a young (39), left-of-centre politician, secured around two-thirds of the votes, and will run under the banner of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) coalition. The backing of the full field of anti-Chávez parties ensures that the historically divided opposition will not split, improving tremendously his electoral chances. The unexpectedly large turnout in the primary, equivalent to an estimated 20% of the electorate, is another sign of better prospects for the opposition.

Moreover, Mr Capriles is believed to be the opposition figure to pose the most serious threat to the president because he may be able to attract the votes of the poor, who have normally supported Mr Chávez because of his strong social spending. Mr Capriles’s promise to retain Mr Chávez’s popular social programmes (known as “missions”) while reviving the economy, promoting private investment and addressing crime will resonate with many Venezuelan voters. He has run his own successful programme, Hambre Cero (Zero Hunger), in Miranda state, modelled on an anti-poverty scheme in Brazil.

Furthermore, the large number of independent or non-aligned voters—estimated by researchers to make up around 30% of Venezuela’s electorate—suggests significant opportunities for Mr Capriles to sway many voters to his side.

Still Chávez’s election to lose

Nonetheless, Mr Chávez continues to hold enormous financial, institutional and other advantages. His approval rate remains high at nearly 60%, and he controls most institutions of power, a vast state media network and the state’s financial resources—all of which he will put to work in his favour during the campaign. Mr Chávez will seek to boost his position by intensifying a social spending spree, with a planned jump in government spending of more than 40% this year.

On the other hand, now that rumours about Mr Chávez’s illness seem to have been well-founded, voter support for a change in government may grow. Much will depend on his next round of medical treatment and what information the authorities are willing to release about his health. Mr Chávez would not be the only Latin American president or candidate to undergo cancer treatment and go on to win election (President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil) or to continue to govern (Fernando Lugo of Paraguay).

Meanwhile, there is no clear successor to Mr Chávez should he become incapacitated or unable to run. Possible replacements include his vice-president, Elías Jaua, his brother Adán Chávez, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. However, none of them appear to have the political standing or clout within the ruling PSUV or the military to be a viable replacement for the powerful and charismatic president.

If Mr Chávez’s health does not seriously deteriorate (for example, if the new lesion proves benign or treatable), the Economist Intelligence Unit expects him to continue to campaign, and we assign him a 60% probability of winning re-election on October 7th. (Some also speculate that the actual date of the elections could be pushed back to accommodate the president.) However, any evidence of a protracted or more debilitating illness could improve the opposition’s chances, making the election, and Venezuela’s overall political outlook, much more difficult to call.