With Chvez's Health Uncertain, Venezuela Regional Elections Will Test Opposition (+Video)

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After Henrique Capriles Radonski lost the Venezuelan presidential election to incumbent Hugo Chvez in October, Venezuela's opposition was left reeling. But the party tried to look ahead.

"We lost one game," said Mr. Capriles, comforting a weary electorate in a speech days after his defeat. "Our next game is for the governors' elections."

Second chances can be hard to come by. But given the reportedly fragile health of President Chvez, regional elections on Sunday are taking on new immediacy. Capriles and the opposition leadership must reassure the more than 6.5 million Venezuelans who cast their votes against Chvez of the opposition's legitimacy. Not only are governorship victories good for party morale, but if Chvez is unable to attend his Jan. 10 inauguration as government official have implied is a real possibility there is a chance the parties could face off in a renewed fight for Venezuela's presidency.

"This is a trial by fire for the Democratic Unity Table (MUD)," the political coalition that Capriles represents, says Elza Cardozo, a professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela. "Everything they manage to win is because they are united."

But the MUD isn't always cohesive. Its a fractious coalition of parties that only banded together in 2008 in hopes of ending Mr. Chvez's 14-year rule. Just weeks after the presidential loss, three congressmen abandoned the party because of infighting.

Losing governorships on Sunday could further splinter the coalition, jeopardizing its chances in future elections. And victory won't be easy: The government is poised to win the majority of the seats up for election. Capriles himself is up for reelection in one state.

Opposition governors currently control eight out of the 23 states in Venezuela; however, Chvez was able to clinch the presidential vote in all but two of the 23 states just two months ago.

Without Chvez?

Since taking office, Chvez has always been the motor of electoral campaigns, stumping for his party's candidates and referendums. His trademark charisma and sometimes marathon-length orations are often cited as what carries his political party, the PSUV.

Yet, following his October victory, the typically outspoken president has stepped back from the public eye.

Pollsters have speculated how Chvez's current absence coming after numerous medical trips to Cuba for an undisclosed form of cancer might benefit the opposition's chances in Sunday's state elections expressly because the president was not tweeting out endorsements or hitting the campaign trail on behalf of various party governors.

But Chvez's recent announcement that his cancer has returned and the designation of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a former trade unionist and minister of foreign affairs, as his desired successor has also resurrected the opposition's hopes for a political wave of change.

If Chvez is unable to attend his January inauguration, the constitution dictates that another presidential election could be less than two months away from now, in February. …