Two months after re-electing President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans return to the polls on Sunday in crucial state elections, which have been overshadowed by news of the ailing leader's cancer surgery in Cuba.
The 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.
Despite losing the presidency, the 40-year-old governor emerged as a strong challenger to Chavez, winning the opposition's largest share of 6.5m votes, or 45 per cent of the popular vote.
"I put my life at the service of Miranda and Venezuela," Capriles said in his closing rally. "I'm not here to stay in power but to make a dream [of national change] come true."
Though widely expected to retain his Miranda seat, Capriles faces a well-financed challenge from senior Chavez ally Elias Jaua, a former vice president.
The opposition hopes voters will focus on grassroots issues and punish the government for power-cuts, pot-holed roads, corruption scandals, violent crime and runaway inflation.
None of the issues, however, dominate the news more than the health condition of Chavez, who remains in Cuba after his surgery.
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.
In its latest update, the government said Chavez had spoken to his family on Friday - possibly for the first time since surgery - and was recovering "satisfactorily", though slowly.
Chavez's son-in-law and Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza said Saturday that the president has been recovering favourably despite some "moments of tension.''
Few details released
Few medical details have been released, so speculation is rife that Chavez may be in a life-threatening situation in Havana's Cimeq hospital with both a difficult post-operation recovery and a possible spreading of the cancer.
"We're extremely hopeful that the president may be with us very soon. But it would also be irresponsible on my part to speak of dates,'' Information Minister Ernesto Villegas told The Associated Press.
In such a charged atmosphere, campaigning for Sunday's vote has taken a backseat to Catholic masses, prayer meetings and vigils across the nation for Chavez.
Maduro has wept in public, state media are replaying images of Chavez round-the-clock, and various government candidates held closing rallies simply playing the president's voice.
The sympathy factor could benefit Chavez's candidates and offset the disadvantage of losing his charismatic presence on the campaign trail in advance.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies