CARACAS — Hugo Chavez’s cancer has upended politics in Venezuela, transforming Sunday’s nationwide elections for state governors and legislators into a test of his legacy that could chart the country’s future in the uncertain months ahead.
For the first time in his nearly 14 years in power, the charismatic, voluble Venezuelan president has been unable to actively participate in such a campaign.
The question now hovering over the vote: Will his illness help or hurt the ruling apparatus he has built almost singlehandedly?
If Chavez’s camp can maintain dominance in the country’s 23 governorships, all but eight of which it holds, it can forge ahead with plans to solidify his ‘‘socialist revolution’’ by fortifying grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
Chavez’s backers have framed the election as a referendum on his legacy, angling for the sympathy vote.
14 years in charge
For the opposition, the elections are apt to determine the fate of its leadership. The most pivotal race involves Henrique Capriles, who gave Chavez his stiffest challenge yet in the Oct. 7 presidential election by winning 44 percent of the votes.
If Capriles, 40, can win reelection as governor of Miranda state, the grandson of a Polish Holocaust survivor would be the opposition’s most likely choice in the event of a presidential election that would need to be called within 30 days if Chavez died.
Chavez has virtually monopolized power in his person, painting much of the country red, the color of his leftist movement, as he nationalized key industries and expropriated private land.
The man he designated to succeed him before flying to Cuba last Sunday for cancer surgery, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, is a political lightweight by comparison.
Another key race is in Zulia state, Venezuela’s most populous, where opposition Governor Pablo Perez is running for reelection.
David Smilde, an analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, believes Capriles will hold on to Miranda’s governorship. But he expects an unusually high turnout Sunday that he believes will favor the Chavistas, even among voters fed up with high-level orruption in the Chavez government.
‘‘It is now about Chavez and his legacy,’’ said Smilde. ‘‘And there is a lot of sympathy.’’
Smilde said the woman who cleans his Caracas apartment complains about Chavez but, after news suggesting his cancer was incurable, ‘‘she was talking to me with her eyes moist about Chavez and how she’s going to vote for Elias Jaua, and that kind of surprised me and I tend to think it’s not isolated.’’
Gladys Espinal, who recently completed studies at the free, state-run Bolivarian University to be a schoolteacher, was also voting for Jaua.
‘‘The (electoral) map is going to be filled with red because that’s the best gift we can give our president,’’ she said in a downtown Caracas bakery.
Chavez, 58, underwent six hours of surgery in Havana on Tuesday that government officials said involved bleeding, which was stanched, and would mean a difficult recovery.