Chavez wins; but what's the future of Venezuela?

For all of the worldwide attention focused on the Venezuelan presidential election Sunday and the hopes of many that young challenger Henrique Capriles would emerge triumphant, it was not to be. After a two-year stint as president under the previous constitution and two six-year terms under a constitution of his own design, Marxist strongman Hugo Chavez rolled up about 54 percent of the vote to win once again.

Whether or not the Chavez-controlled electoral tribunal committed widespread fraud will probably never be determined in country in where there has never been an independent audit of the voter rolls. Carpiles himself accepted the results around midnight Eastern Standard Time. But what is on the minds of most Chavez-watchers is ???What Next???? Did Capriles???40-year-old former governor of the Miranda state and leader of the united opposition against Chavez???set the stage in losing Sunday for a winning race for president if El Jeffe (the chief, as Chavez is popularly known) fails to fill out his new term?

Although the 58-year-old president insists he has conquered the cancer for which he was treated earlier this year, rumors that he is terminally ill abound. Until the twilight days of the race when he finally began making campaign appearances, Chavez campaigned largely through speeches carried by state-run TV (which is required to carry the President???s addresses, even when it meant pre-empting those of Capriles). For his part, former college basketball player Capriles displayed a striking contrast by appearing in 260 communities over an eight-month period.

Under the Venezuelan constitution, if Chavez is unable to serve the final two years of his upcoming six-year term, the vice president would fill out the remainder until the next presidential election in 2018. But if his exit from the presidency occurs in the next four years of his new term, the vice president would succeed him as a special election for president was being held in 30 days.

Enter Capriles, who would probably be favored to win such a special election based on his strong performance Sunday. Moreover, there is no natural heir among

Chavez???s comrades to lead what he calls ???21st Century Socialism??? and the ???Bolivaran revolution (named after Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar).??? Political analysts usually name the president of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, and Foreign Affairs Minister Nicolas Maduro as potential replacements, but none have anything approaching the charisma of former tank commander and political prisoner Chavez.

Speculation about a political heir to Chavez grows murkier when one throws in the mix the strongman???s brother, Barinas state Gov. Adan Chavez, and daughter Rosa Virginia, who was a close campaign adviser to her father.

Should a ???President Capriles??? come to power, the biggest question he would face would be whether he could dismantle the socialist stranglehold Chavez has put on the Venezuelan economy and political system. In his long reign, ???El Jeffe??? nationalized the telecommuncations and electricity industries, and took over his country???s oil monopoly PDVSA. Today, its payroll has tripled in the last decade to 121,000 and all, according to PDVSA president Rafael Ramirez are ???red, very red.??? Abroad, as the Financial Times noted, Chavez ???befriended assorted pariah states such as Iran and Belarus??? and forged alliances with leftist, anti-U.S. regimes such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

That???s a tall order for anyone to undo. The question now is whether Henrique Capriles gets the chance to try that he was denied Sunday night.