CARACAS, Venezuela – Smarting after a bruising loss in state elections, Venezuela's opposition will now be forced to reassess its strategy and rebuild quickly to prepare for presidential elections that many expect could be called to replace ailing leftist President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez's increasingly bleak outlook after his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba appears to have galvanized his supporters, making Vice President Nicolas Maduro a tough candidate to beat in new elections, which under the constitution would be called within 30 days if the president dies, is incapacitated or steps down.
"It is a 30-day period that is going to be infused with all of the heightened emotion around Chavez's departure," said Cynthia Arnson, an analyst at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "The sympathy vote and the fervor of the Chavista base to come out and vote for the continuation of the revolution will be very high."
Maduro would also get a boost from a socialist party that swept 20 of 23 state elections in Sunday's gubernatorial elections. One of the three anti-Chavez candidates who held off the onslaught was Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October's presidential vote but is now widely considered the opposition's best hope against Maduro.
Capriles played down that possibility when asked if he would run for president again.
"It isn't the time to be making those calculations," Capriles told reporters Sunday night. "There will be time."
He added that it was Chavez's government that raised the possible scenario of new elections, and he questioned the idea of a hand-picked successor inheriting power.
"Leaders aren't decreed. They're built," said Capriles, who seemed in campaign mode wearing a baseball cap and track suit emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag.
On a national level, Chavez's allies won 4.7 million votes in the state elections, much less than the 8.1 million who voted for Chavez in October but still more than 970,000 votes ahead of the opposition.
The 53 percent voter turnout on Sunday was considerably lower than the more than 80 percent who cast ballots in October's presidential vote, and the high abstention affected both camps.
The vote was the first in Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency in which he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn't spoken publicly since Tuesday's surgery for pelvic cancer, and he remained out of sight while recovering in Cuba, accompanied by his four children and son-in-law.
The strong showing in the vote will likely give the president's confidants a freer hand to deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
Arnson said she expects that Chavez's blessing for Maduro, amid an outpouring of emotion over the president's departure, would be a powerful ingredient for an election campaign.
The 50-year-old Maduro, a burly former bus driver, has shown unflagging loyalty and become a leading spokesman for the leftist leader as his foreign minister during the past six years. Chavez appointed Maduro as vice president after winning re-election in October.
Maduro stood in for Chavez on Monday presiding over an annual ceremony marking the death anniversary of independence hero Simon Bolivar. Troops stood at attention outside the National Pantheon while an orchestra and choir performed, led by star conductor Gustavo Dudamel. State television showed images of Bolivar's flag-draped coffin.
Afterward, Maduro called the elections an important victory but also noted that one government candidate, in Bolivar state, nearly lost due to a vote split by a second pro-Chavez contender. He said there had been similar problems in a few states.
"What would have happened if they had lost in those states?" Maduro told reporters. "We should reflect, and in those states where there were parallel candidacies we need to have a process of reunification. ... We're going to reunify all the patriotic, revolutionary forces."
"For the love of the nation, for the love of Chavez, we're going to unite our forces for the battles to come," Maduro said, without elaborating.
The government in the past two years has spent heavily on social programs and new public housing projects that have sprung up around the country, and that spending helped Chavez's image ahead of his re-election win in October. The government in the coming months is expected to face new constraints on spending as its debt has grown and the country's currency has rapidly slipped on the black market.
"With all its economic difficulties, the government will be hard-pressed to create new programs in the coming months. But it doesn't really need to," Arnson said. "Chavez's incapacity or death will trigger a tremendous outpouring of emotion, some of which is directly rooted in the social benefits that people have already received."
She and other analysts predict that Maduro would face challenges in trying to maintain unity within Chavez's party, and that he would constantly need to negotiate with different factions.
The loss of ground by anti-Chavez candidates in Sunday's vote raises tough questions for the opposition. It lost five of its governorships, including the country's most populous state, Zulia, an important center of the oil industry that is Venezuela's economic lifeblood.
Chavez is due to be sworn in for another term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down before then, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, would take over temporarily until elections are held.
Opposition coalition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said in an interview on the Venezuelan television channel Globovision that the defeat was "a very strong blow" that points to a need for the opposition to analyze what went wrong.
The opposition continues to be stymied by "the lack of a clear programmatic alternative to Chavez," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He pointed out that Capriles tried to campaign against Chavez in the presidential vote by espousing more moderate policies akin to those of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, including keeping social programs for the poor, and he still lost.
"In this election, except for their dislike of Chavez, most candidates did not offer an alternative," he said.
Analyst Mariana Bacalao, a professor of public opinion at Central University of Venezuela said the results of the elections reflected apathy and "a sense of failure" among Chavez's opponents after repeated electoral defeats.
Bacalao said the opposition "should sit down and rethink itself."
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.