The government has spent heavily on social programs and new public housing projects around the country, with the spending boosting Chavez's image ahead of his re-election win in October. In the coming months, however, the government is expected to face new constraints on spending with the country's currency having slipped on the black market and its debt growing.
"With all its economic difficulties, the government will be hard-pressed to create new programs in the coming months. But it doesn't really need to," Arnson said. "Chavez's incapacity or death will trigger a tremendous outpouring of emotion, some of which is directly rooted in the social benefits that people have already received."
She and other analysts predict that Maduro would face challenges in trying to maintain unity within Chavez's party, and that he would constantly need to negotiate with different factions.
"The support for Chavez's party was broad yesterday. But this doesn't tell us how deep it is," said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. "Should Chavez depart the scene, no other leader has the same charisma and ability to keep the pro-Chavez coalition together for very long. His successor (Maduro) will have to deal with popular anger at crime, shortages, a likely devaluation, neglected infrastructure, and other looming problems."
The opposition faces its own tough questions after losing five of its governorships, including the country's most populous state, Zulia, an important oil production center.
Chavez is due to be sworn in for another term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down before then, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, would take over temporarily until elections are held.
Opposition coalition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said in an interview on the Venezuelan TV channel Globovision that the defeats were "a very strong blow" and will prompt political soul-searching.
The opposition continues to be stymied by "the lack of a clear programmatic alternative to Chavez," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He pointed out that Capriles tried to campaign against Chavez in the presidential vote by espousing more moderate policies akin to those of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, including preserving Chavez era social programs for the poor, and he still lost.
"In this election, except for their dislike of Chavez, most candidates did not offer an alternative," he said.
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.
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