Polls have closed in Venezuela's state elections as aides of ailing President Hugo Chavez, who was re-elected two months ago, say he is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba.
Sunday’s vote for 23 state governorships, 16 of which are controlled by the ruling party, could test political waters ahead of a possible new presidential vote if Chavez is incapacitated by cancer.
Among those who are running for governor is Henrique Capriles, who unsuccessfully challenged Chavez during the October 8 presidential election. He is the governor of the state of Miranda.
Two other opposition governors, Pablo Perez and Henri Falcon, are also seeking re-election, as well as Chavez's brother Adan, who is the governor of the state of Barinas.
Of all the candidates, Capriles is the most closely-watched, according to Al Jazeera's Andy Gallacher, reporting from Caracas.
"If he wins this weekend in the regional elections, and wins by a significant margin, that will put him in a very strong position to take on the socialist movement," Gallacher said.
Meanwhile, Chavez’s condition is improving and he is already "giving instructions" from his hospital bed in Havana as he continues to recover from cancer surgery, a cabinet member said Sunday.
"As of yesterday, El Comandante [Chavez] had already resumed communicating with us, giving instructions, governing in fact, giving instructions to be implemented in our country," said Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza in a phone call broadcast on state television.
"He continues to recover, positively, day after day, hour after hour," Arreaza, husband of Chavez's eldest daughter, said. Both have been at the president's side in Havana.
The president "urged all Venezuelans, especially patriotic ones ... to exercise their duty and right to vote today to consolidate all the areas that will help us keep moving forward on social justice," the minister added.
The operation was the fourth for the socialist leader since he was diagnosed with cancer in the pelvic region in mid-2011.
After re-election in October, Chavez, 58, is due to start a new term on January 10, but has named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his preferred successor should he be incapacitated.
That would trigger a new presidential poll within 30 days.