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With Chavez ailing, how long can Venezuela endure leadership crisis?

A woman holds a figurine of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as she attends a mass to pray for Chavez's health in Caracas December 11, 2012. Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba on Tuesday for a cancer recurrence that has thrown his presidency into jeopardy and upended politics in the South American OPEC nation.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS

With the health of Hugo Chavez shrouded in secrecy and the scheduled inauguration on Thursday now postponed – and no indication of when the elected president will be sworn in – Venezuela continues to drift through a leaderless and uncertain phase.

The immediate effect will be a government that achieves little and the likelihood of a power struggle in the medium-term, argues Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and co-author of two books on Venezuela, including Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chávez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela.

"There's going to be a government that is very inoperative and the opposition will be fairly quiescent. I don't think we're going to see the opposition mobilizing people to press the government to do anything else," he said.

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Venezuela's opposition has expressed outrage over the lack of details about the health of the ailing Mr. Chavez, who, according to his allies, remains in Cuba recovering from cancer surgery. He was last seen in public nearly a month ago stepping on to a plane and waving goodbye to well wishers – leaving many to wonder whether he would survive his latest cancer battle and fourth cancer surgery.

His opponents argue that postponing the swearing-in ceremony is unconstitutional. But mass anti-Chavez street protests are unlikely during a time when many Venezuelans are holding vigils for the health of "El Comandante" – as the president is affectionately called.

"What I won't do is put people to fight against people," said Henrique Capriles, opposition leader and second-place finisher in the October presidential elections, told reporters Wednesday. "Our country doesn't need hate. Our country doesn't need fights."

On Wednesday, Venezuela's supreme court upheld the indefinite postponement of the inauguration and said his cabinet could continue governing in the interim.

Mr. Chavez was first elected in 1998, emerging as a populist leftist firebrand who ran on an anti-establishment platform. He promised to redistribute the country's oil wealth to the poor and bolster health and social services. He has pushed through constitutional reforms that gave him greater powers and led many Venezuelans to criticize his power-grab. He has survived a recall referendum and a coup.

But his struggle with cancer emerged in 2011 as his biggest fight yet. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy in Cuba. A year later he stepped in to 2012 presidential campaign invigorated and determined to win a fourth term. He beat his opponent by 10 points last October.

Appearing in a televised address in early December 2012, Mr. Chavez sat between Vice- President Niclas Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and put his long-serving foreign minister, Mr. Maduro, in charge while he underwent treatment in Cuba.

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Javier Corrales, political science professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, argues that without a "final arbiter" – President Chavez – the current show of unity by Mr. Maduro and Mr. Cabello could lead to "splits."

"Very soon the Venezuelan government is going to have to tackle very difficult decisions. What to do with the deficit, what to do with the debt, what to do with the Americans, what to do with peace negotiations in Colombia, what to do with the incredibly low price of gasoline in Venezuela," said Mr. Corrales.

"At some point I expect some division and once those divisions emerge there's going to be a power struggle – in part because the issues that are looming are very divisive in any government," he added.

Mr. Chavez's sudden departure and statements by his vice-president in which Mr. Maduro said the president's status was "delicate and complex" following surgery and a respiratory infection, led to predictions that the 58-year-old's health was deteriorating. But on Monday, the country's information minister, Ernesto Villegas, said the Mr. Chavez was in a "stable situation".

"Even if Chavez were to come back he's never [going to] come back with the political weight that he had before. It is inevitable that over the coming days [Vice-President] Maduro or [National Assembly President] Cabello, or both, are going to consolidate new leaderships," said Mr. Corrales.

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