On Sunday, Venezuela's voters went to the polls to elect state governors and legislators. Amid low turnout, the candidates affiliated with ailing President Hugo Chávez's PSUV party won 20 of 23 states (although the election in Bolívar state is still being contested).
For Venezuela's opposition, this result was a disaster. The opposition camp lost five of the eight governorships that it had previously held and failed to win any new ones. There were, however, a few silver linings for the anti-Chávez forces.
Just two months ago, Chávez defeated Governor Henrique Capriles in the presidential contest by 10 percentage points, beating him in all but two states, including Capriles' home state of Miranda. Coming off the heels of that defeat, some people even projected that the opposition could be completely shut out. Complicating the forecast even further was the fact that the president spent the week before the election fighting for his life in a Havana clinic. (He seems to be pulling through, for now.) The news of his renewed illness has galvanized his supporters.
If that was the expectation, then the opposition outperformed it. Not only did it win three states, it also posted gains in some larger, more important states than those that Capriles carried in October.
This comes as little consolation to the opposition camp, presumably, considering what they lost. Coming into these elections, there were eight governors on the opposition side (although three of them were elected on Chávez's coattails but joined the opposition later). Crucially, the opposition lost races in two key states: Zulia, the country's most populous, and Carabobo, the third most populous.
Yet the anti- Chávez forces can find some solace in the results. Most importantly, Capriles survived an onslaught of government advertising to beat Chávez's candidate, former Vice President Elías Jaua in the race in Miranda. This was, arguably, the most important race of the night, as a loss by Capriles would have put a stop to his claim to leadership of the opposition.
Capriles' win, together with the losses incurred by other political forces, means he is the clear front-runner to become the opposition candidate in case an election to replace Hugo Chávez has to be called. According to Venezuela's constitution, a new election has to be called within the following thirty days in the event of a president's death. Since Capriles has already campaigned across the country, he has the necessary name recognition to compete. His victory in Miranda also gives him the necessary political capital. The other two elected governors are Capriles allies with little name recognition outside their home states, and there have been no suggestions that they are looking to challenge him.
Moreover, even though the chavista forces proved they could win elections without Chávez (the president did not campaign for his other candidates), the low turnout is a warning sign. The roughly five million votes the PSUV candidates received are much lower than the 8.2 million Chávez got in October. They are also much lower than the 6.6 million votes Capriles picked up in October.
The stage seems set for the next phase, whatever it may be and whenever it may come. From what is known about the president's health, it is highly likely that Venezuelans will have to go to the polls to elect a new president in the next twelve months. With Sunday's results, Vice President Nicolás Maduro (the man Chávez has named as his successor) is the favorite to win.
But these latest elections have also clarified the picture for the opposition. It also has a candidate, one that is well known, tested, and battle-ready.
Capriles beat a former vice president in 2008 to win his first term as governor. Last Sunday, he defeated another of Chávez's former vice presidents. As he told the press after his win, he's "beaten two, and there may be another one coming down the road."
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