A swift election may favour Mr Maduro, already the de facto president. He will benefit from a sympathy vote. The sooner he has his own mandate, the less risk there is that he will face rebellion, or at least passive resistance, from within the chavista camp. The opposition candidate will probably be Henrique Capriles. A moderate centrist and dogged campaigner, in last October’s vote he cut Mr Chávez’s margin of victory from 26 percentage points in 2006 to 11 points. But the opposition was demoralised by defeat; it fared poorly in regional elections in December, though Mr Capriles was re-elected as governor of the state of Miranda, covering much of the capital.
The bigger question in the months ahead will be how much will survive of Mr Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”, named for Simón Bolívar, South America’s Venezuelan-born independence hero. His reluctance to surrender power despite his illness underlined just how personal his regime was. Through a mixture of unusual political talent and extraordinary good fortune, Mr Chávez managed to make himself into a world figure, perhaps the best-known Latin American after his friend and idol, Fidel Castro. Death cut short his oft-stated intention to rule his country until 2030. And it means he will not be around to face the reckoning after 14 years of a corrupt, oil-fuelled autocracy.
The Bolivarian revolution now faces its greatest test. Without doubt, chavismo will outlive its founder. Many ordinary Venezuelans will look back on his rule with fondness. But his heirs will have to grapple with some intractable problems.
After a pre-election spending binge last year, the economy is slowing again. Faced with shortages of many goods, including hard currency, Mr Maduro devalued the currency by 32% in February. Venezuela comes towards the bottom of just about every league table for good governance or economic competitiveness. For 14 years Venezuelans have been told that their problems were caused by somebody else—the United States or “the oligarchy”. Getting ahead has depended on political loyalty rather than merit. The mass enrolment of millions in “universities” that mainly impart propaganda have raised expectations that are almost bound to be dashed.
Assuming the PSUV wins the election, it will be ill-equipped to grapple with these problems. None of its leaders has the authority of Mr Chávez, nor his skill at communicating with the masses. While affable, Mr Maduro is a yes-man lacking political weight, according to a former Latin American foreign minister who dealt with him. Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly and an army colleague of Mr Chávez, has declared his support for Mr Maduro, but has ambitions of his own. Perhaps only the Cuban leadership can preserve unity among the chavistas. The stakes are high. Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, knows that the loss of Venezuelan oil would plunge his country’s economy deeper into penury.
Stay tuned for a rocky time in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.