President Hugo Chavez spent his first week back in Venezuela too frail to be seen in public and too weak to receive well-wishers. But despite his precarious health, few doubt Chavez's prowess at the ballot box. And that's reviving tensions among a battered opposition at a time when many are expecting new elections.
The alliance of about 30 opposition parties known as the MUD has begun the process of trying to choose an eventual Chavez successor. But many wager the coalition will settle on Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda State, who won 6.6 million votes in October's presidential race. Although it wasn't enough to topple El Comandante, it was a record for the opposition and made Capriles a household name.
But now a growing minority is accusing the MUD of working behind closed doors and repeating past mistakes.
"Venezuelans and the political leaders are living in denial" if they think Capriles can edge out more votes than he did last time, said Diego Arria, a one-time presidential candidate and a full-time government critic. "If Capriles is the candidate, I will come out on television and say, 'This is the worst thing that could happen for the country.' "
Arria only won 1.2 percent of the vote during opposition primaries in 2012. But as a former governor, deputy and ambassador to the United Nations, he is seen as an elder statesman and his opinion carries weight in some sectors.
He is urging the opposition to form a larger coalition, which would include the MUD, but also labor groups, student organizations and other sectors that would deepen the pool of presidential candidates.
"It should be someone from outside of the political realm," Arria said of an opposition standard-bearer, "maybe a labor leader, maybe a professor, but someone who has some charisma."
The opposition has reason to be tense. After losing the presidential race in October, Chavez allies won 20 out of 23 governor's races in December.
"The opposition is in a climate where it's demoralized and unmotivated," said John Magdaleno, a political analyst in Caracas. "Whether it's Arria, other political parties, or other movements, people are unsatisfied with the direction of the (coalition) at this moment."
But the specter of snap elections makes calls for a shakeup problematic. If Chavez were to die or step down, new elections would be held within 30 days, and the government already has an anointed successor: Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
"There are other legitimate (opposition) candidates," Magdaleno said. "But I think a political calculation needs to be made here -- there's simply not enough time."
Capriles has been keeping his head low as he concentrates on governing Miranda, Venezuela's most populous state and part of greater Caracas. While he takes shots at the administration for being more concerned with politicking than solving Venezuela's problems, he hasn't talked about being a presidential front-runner.
But the opposition is showing signs that it's revving up for a fight. Over the weekend, crowds took to the streets to protest the government's economic plan. A student group, which had been protesting outside the Cuban embassy demanding Chavez's return to Venezuela from Cuba where he was being treated for cancer, now says it will protest in front of the Military Hospital where the president is under care, until he makes an appearance.
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