CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - It's hard to imagine an election in Venezuela without Hugo Chavez, the larger-than-life personality who gazes down from billboards and murals and fills the airwaves for hours at a stretch with his unique mixture of fiery speeches and folksy banter.
Yet that's just the scenario this South American nation must contemplate as the charismatic populist, who has dominated the political landscape during 13 years as president, is treated in Cuba for a possible return of the cancer he thought he had licked.
If Chavez were to die or lingering health problems force him to withdraw suddenly from the public eye, it could plunge his socialist-inspired political movement into chaos over who will stand in the Oct. 7 presidential vote.
For his long-marginalized rivals, running against a candidate not named Hugo Chavez means a better chance of retaking the presidential palace, but Chavez loyalists could see a victory over a mere stand-in for their hero as illegitimate and their feuding could cause instability. So a world without Chavez would mean greater potential turmoil for loyalists and opponents alike.
"I think everyone is hoping for a successful operation,'' said Mariana Bacalao, a professor in the School of Social Communication at the Central University of Venezuela.
Even Chavez's election rival, Henrique Capriles, has wished the president a speedy recovery saying he wants to win "fair and square.''
Chavez underwent surgery Monday in Havana and aides said he was recovering well after a one-inch (two-centimeter) lesion was removed from the same part of the body where a larger, malignant tumor was taken out last summer. There has been no confirmation that the new tumor is cancerous. But details about the seriousness of Chavez's illness have not been released, and with speculation flying about dire prognoses, Venezuelans are increasingly forced to wonder, What if?
If Chavez, 57, recovers fully and returns to the campaign trail, he would be a formidable candidate. …