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With Chávez's health uncertain, Venezuela regional elections will test opposition (+video)

As questions rise about Hugo Chávez's ability to rule, opposition leadership must prove their legitimacy in state elections this weekend if they hope to be contenders in possible future contests.

HAVANA, Cuba - Soldiers attend a Mass in Cuba to pray for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's health.
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After Henrique Capriles Radonski lost the Venezuelan presidential election to incumbent Hugo Chávez in October, Venezuela's opposition was left reeling. But the party tried to look ahead.

"We lost one game," said Mr. Capriles, comforting a weary electorate in a speech days after his defeat. "Our next game is for the governors' elections."

Second chances can be hard to come by. But given the reportedly fragile health of President Chávez, regional elections on Sunday are taking on new immediacy. Capriles and the opposition leadership must reassure the more than 6.5 million Venezuelans who cast their votes against Chávez of the opposition's legitimacy. Not only are governorship victories good for party morale, but if Chávez is unable to attend his Jan. 10 inauguration – as government official have implied is a real possibility – there is a chance the parties could face off in a renewed fight for Venezuela's presidency.

"This is a trial by fire for the Democratic Unity Table (MUD)," the political coalition that Capriles represents, says Elza Cardozo, a professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela. "Everything they manage to win is because they are united."

But the MUD isn't always cohesive. It’s a fractious coalition of parties that only banded together in 2008 in hopes of ending Mr. Chávez's 14-year rule. Just weeks after the presidential loss, three congressmen abandoned the party because of infighting.

Losing governorships on Sunday could further splinter the coalition, jeopardizing its chances in future elections. And victory won't be easy: The government is poised to win the majority of the seats up for election. Capriles himself is up for reelection in one state. 

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