As the controversial ruler of a petro-state saddled with a flagging economy, soaring inflation, and massive income inequality, Hugo Chávez is in fast-vanishing company these days. And it surely doesn't help that his good friend Muammer Gaddafi was rumored to be en route to Caracas before resurfacing at home to unleash a maniacal crackdown on the "greasy rats and cats" seeking his overthrow.

Given that a generation of assumptions about Middle Eastern autocracies has gone pear-shaped in just six weeks, some wonder if Chávez's fortunes could start to fray as well. With Venezuela currently producing nearly 2.5mn bpd of crude -- two thirds of which are exported -- and with a truckload of PDVSA and sovereign debt outstanding, Chávez's fate is a matter of keen concern.

Not to worry -- yet -- analysts said. There are several key differences between Chavez's Venezuela and the MENA countries embroiled in popular revolt.

The first is that Chávez, a skillful populist, is genuinely popular. He has built a solid political base through oil-funded political patronage networks and lavish (largely extra-budgetary) outlays for the nation's poor. So although Venezuela has suffered through two consecutive years of economic contraction and soaring inflation, more than 40 per cent of the population still holds a favorable opinion of the president. To put that in perspective, it's roughly the same as what US President Barack Obama enjoys these days, and its well beyond anything that the ousted or destabilized MENA despots could plausibly claim.

The second is that while democracy is attenuated in Venezuela -- political opponents suffer harassment, checks and balances on executive power are weak, and Chávez currently rules by decree under flood-related temporary powers granted by the outgoing congress in December 2010 -- there are few claims of outright vote-rigging, and the country's opposition still sees the ballot box, rather than the barricade, as the best way to usher Chávez out of office.

Even the recent, small hunger strike in Caracas to protest human rights abuses -- which gained attention (and raised some hopes) when Chávez's foreign minister attributed it to US plans to foment a "virtual Egypt" in Venezuela -- has just been called off without incident.

After boycotting the 2005 parliamentary ballot, opposition parties took nearly half the popular vote in September 2010, and now control more than a third of congress, which enables them to block certain kinds of legislation. According to Patrick Esteruelas, VP at Moody's Sovereign Risk Group in New York:

There is the distinct possibility that Chavez could lose in 2012 [presidential elections], and as much as Chávez’s political competition to this day is limited, it is growing. So the opposition believes that while the system is imperfect, it can actually give them the opportunity to curb Chavez’s power and ultimately to throw him out of office.

Moreover, Venezuela has already experienced -- and rejected -- a coup against Chávez. In a brief note circulated on Tuesday, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Alejandro Rivera pointed out that:

A political uprising resulting in the overthrowing of Chavez already took place in 2002. President Chavez stepped down from power amid protests from civilians and military leaders. Less than 72-hours later Chavez was restored to power after undemocratic laws were imposed by the interim opposition leader Pedro Carmona. In our view this event would seem to suggest that Venezuelans prefer to choose their leader rather than have someone else step in unelected.

But 2012 could be the horizon of trouble for Venezuela. If an increasingly imperious Chávez is seen to blatantly rig the electoral system ahead of the election or falsify the results afterwards there could be real unrest. But a popular uprising to challenge a skewed election wouldn't quite fit the MENA model either -- if anything it would bring to mind an Orange Revolution scenario. And in any case, that's a risk that won't creep up for at least another year.

In the meantime we can't help but notice that Mideast contagion seems to be striking mainly in the Midwest, where the Badger and Buckeye revolutions are already in bloom...

See also:
FT Tilt's complete MENA coverage - FT Tilt