CARACAS President Hugo Chavez's public assurances that he will beat cancer have failed to quell Venezuelans' frenetic speculation about whether the illness will ruin his chances of winning another six-year term in October.
Opinion polls show two thirds of voters think their larger-than-life president will recover from cancer despite his long, uncharacteristic silences and nagging rumors that he might have to anoint a successor - perhaps before voting day.
Even though Chavez has made only fleeting appearances in public since his cancer struck again in February, most polls show the former soldier ahead of opposition challenger Henrique Capriles. Some suggest he is widening his lead.
But five months from the October 7 election, and with Chavez's prognosis a state secret, much could change.
Here are some possible scenarios ahead of the presidential election in South America's No. 1 oil exporter:
AILING CHAVEZ RUNS FOR RE-ELECTION
While little is known about Chavez's health, the recurrence of his cancer in February and his long absences from public view have added fuel to speculation by anti-government journalists that he has taken a turn for the worse.
There have been false rumors of his death at various times, though Chavez's claim to be fully cured at the end of last year also turned out to be wrong.
Specialists say a full recovery has looked less likely since February, when he returned to Cuba for more surgery, and Venezuelan bonds have rallied this year on bets the fiery socialist will be too ill run for another term. Debt prices fell this week, however, as investors doubted "Chavismo" can be beaten.
A source with links to Chavez's doctors told Reuters the 57-year-old leader is suffering problems in one of his legs, suggesting his condition may be deteriorating.
But efforts by Capriles' campaign team to sow debate about everyday problems such as crime and unemployment have struggled to take root, overshadowed by the looming figure of Chavez who has dominated the country's politics for 13 years and the mystery over his illness.
That could embolden any strategists within Chavez's circle who are determined to see him win another election, even if his campaign is conducted with sporadic public appearances, phone calls to state media and Twitter messages.
The opposition, which has united behind the young governor's pledge to install a Brazilian-style, center-left government, hopes Chavez will keep himself scarce, allowing them to court large numbers of undecided voters averse to the prospect of an ailing president with an uncertain future.
Eurasia Group analyst Daniel Kerner said the government strategy is for Chavez to run even if very sick.
"This suggests that unless he is almost incapable of campaigning, or does not make it to the election, investors should expect Chavez to run," he wrote in a briefing note.
CHAVEZ LEAVES POWER BEFORE VOTE
The idea of "Chavismo" without Chavez has been a taboo in government circles for years, but it is now a possibility that strategists on both sides of the nation's political divide are analyzing closely.
If Chavez were forced to abandon the election race because of his illness, the short-term future for the upended Venezuelan political landscape would hinge on whether he would be able to anoint a clear political heir to lead his "revolution."
Most polls show Capriles would beat any of the figures seen as potential successors, who lack Chavez's charisma and popularity among the poor. But analysts say this might be avoided if Chavez were able to anoint an heir in an orderly fashion, especially given that the sympathy vote would go to his candidate.
A hurried or chaotic departure from the election race in which Chavez is unable to pass the baton to a hand-picked replacement would raise the risk of infighting within his movement or opposition from the armed forces who have been an important part of his power base.
"Chavez's personal negotiations with internal critics would be the only way for a substitute to avoid turmoil and avert conflicts," said local pollster Luis Vicente Leon. "If he could manage that, it wouldn't necessarily mean defeat for Chavismo."
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver whose more pragmatic approach and trade union past win him favor in diverse circles, is foreign analysts' bet as the most likely replacement. Other possibilities include National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello or Vice President Elias Jaua.
Because polls show any one of them trailing Capriles for now, emphasis would likely be put on picking the most competitive. A surprise candidate - like Chavez's brother Adan or his daughter Maria Gabriela Chavez - might be possible.
There is also a possibility that the election could be delayed if there were "exceptional circumstances," which would allow Chavez or his party more time to name a replacement if necessary.
CHAVEZ'S HEALTH WORSENS SHARPLY AFTER ELECTION
Many opposition commentators question the reliability of voter surveys giving Chavez a widening lead over Capriles and, with five months of campaigning left, some say the young governor of Miranda state still has a good chance of unseating him.
A Chavez victory in October would likely be the least destabilizing option for Venezuela. Maintaining the status quo, however, might open the door to intense uncertainty in the short- to medium-term if his prognosis is as poor as some doctors and the opposition suggest.
Venezuela's constitution states that if an incumbent steps down within four years into a six-year term, a new vote would be due. So if Chavez were to win, yet become incapacitated soon after, the opposition would have another chance.
It would likely be more complicated for Chavez's rivals if he had to step down between winning the election and starting a new term in February 2013.
"The worst thing for the opposition would be if Chavez won the elections and then dropped out before being sworn in February," a senior opposition source told Reuters, warning that such a scenario might fragment opponents' current alliance.
"The opposition wouldn't have time for primaries and neither would it be able to name Capriles, because he would have lost ... The fragmentation of the opposition's unity is very likely in this scenario."
(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Jackie Frank)
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