Venezuela’s Maduro faces tricky post-Chavez panorama

CARACAS,  (Reuters) – Acting President Nicolas Maduro may struggle to advance the late Hugo Chavez’s socialist policies if he wins Venezuela’s election on Sunday, lacking both his predecessor’s iron grip on a disparate ruling coalition and the robust state finances that cemented his rule.

Maduro holds a wide lead in opinion polls over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles for the election triggered by Chavez’s death last month after a two-year battle with cancer.

Late last year, Chavez named Maduro as his chosen successor in case he did not survive his fourth surgery for the disease. That was his last public speech and Chavez died on March 5.

If the 50-year-old Maduro wins the election, he will inherit government finances strained by heavy spending during Chavez’s 2012 re-election campaign, the highest inflation in the Americas, and nagging shortages of basic consumer goods.

Widely liked among Chavez supporters but lacking his mentor’s charisma, the former bus driver and union organizer may also have trouble controlling “Chavismo,” a movement ranging from military officers and oil executives to slum community organizers and ideologues.

Top allies have recognized the importance the politically wily former soldier Chavez had in keeping them all in line. “Chavez was a barrier to a lot of the crazy ideas that occurred to us,” said Diosdado Cabello, a powerful party leader seen by many Venezuelans as a potential rival to Maduro.

“He imposed his leadership, his prudence and his conscience, and in many cases ensured we did not carry on.”

Maduro scoffs at suggestions of divisions in the coalition. As president, he would have the backing of those who over a decade benefited from Chavez’s ambitious oil-funded social programs that put free clinics in slums, provided subsidized groceries and built hundreds of thousands of new homes.

Jose Albornoz, who worked alongside Maduro for years as a lawmaker before joining the opposition, said his experience as a union negotiator would stand him in good stead to forge consensus among different factions.

But he noted that Cabello has considerably greater sway than Maduro in important areas such as the military, the legislature and state governorships, and predicted that Maduro could come under pressure from inside the coalition.

“With the death of President Chavez, the struggle for leadership is starting to heat up,” said Albornoz, who is now one of the leaders of a small opposition party.

Maduro served as Chavez’s foreign minister for six years and, as he now campaigns for president, he is trying to elevate his former boss’s image to that of a saint.

He is also portraying himself as Chavez’s political “son,” pulling at the heart strings of millions of rank-and-file followers who might otherwise doubt his leadership.

Despite maintaining his late boss’s shrill rhetoric – including calling foes heirs of Hitler – Maduro is unlikely to maintain Chavez’s torrid pace of nationalizations, his regular confrontations with private enterprise, or the diplomatic run-ins with the United States and its allies.

Maduro may be more inclined to hold discussions with the opposition or business leaders who have been at odds with the government for years. Last year, he held informal talks with the U.S. State Department after years of bilateral tensions, although that back channel was cut last month when his government took offense at U.S. criticism of democratic standards in Venezuela. A more diplomatic approach may lead to restlessness among ideological stalwarts, including armed groups in the slums who vow to carry on Chavez’s legacy and see confrontation as the cornerstone of his “21st century socialism.”

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