This week’s dramatic series of events–Hugo Chávez announcing a recurrence of his cancer, pointing to a successor and undergoing and apparently complicated surgery in Cuba–has changed the nature of Sunday’s governors elections. A week ago these elections were about the government’s ability to push through the communal state. Perhaps the most important factor was abstention which many analysts thought would surpass 40% (high by Venezuelan standards).

Now these are new elections. With a potential transition looming, both sides are newly focused on the regional elections and overall participation is likely to increase. Opposition voters, previously disillusioned by their loss in the October presidential election, now sense opportunity and will turn out in greater numbers than they would have otherwise. Pro-government forces, in turn, are focused on keeping the revolution alive and will also turnout. In general, higher participation rates favor the government since there are many voters who only go to the polls if Chávez is running. This usually makes the opposition relatively more competitive in regional elections. But these elections have now become national and that is likely to hurt the opposition’s chances. The terrain already looked difficult for them–Datanalisis’s numbers from early November had Chávez with post-electoral approval ratings not seen since before the closing of Radio Caracas Television in May 2007–and this week’s turn of events makes it look like Sunday could be even tougher than anticipated.

Francisco Toro has argued that the elections have become a de facto primary in preparation for an eventual presidential election if Chávez is incapacitated. If Capriles wins Miranda by a comfortable margin he will undoubtedly be the opposition candidate to confront Chávez’s successor. If he wins by a narrow margin there will be some doubts–although I think that he would still be the candidate. But if he loses people will look at the races in Zulia and Lara. If Pablo Pérez or Henri Falcón win by convincing margins, they might be seen as more viable alternatives.

As I argue in Charlie Devereux’s story today, I think the election is also a sort of referendum on the Chávez period and its continuation, and will give a good indication of how much of Chávez’s popularity could carry over to a successor in an election. One of the most fundamental insights of sociology is that charismatic authority does not transfer. However, a charismatic leader whose time abruptly and tragically ends does have a certain glow that can extend to others at least in the short term. Sunday’s election will give a good indication of just how much glow Chávez might have if he does not recover.