Still, Maduro and his supporters have great incentive to rise to the occasion. "If they don't, they risk losing power, and they want to stay in power," he said.
But even if he wins a six-year term as president, Maduro would not be on solid ground, given the country's profound economic and security problems, Shifter said.
He cited inflation above 22%, massive debt, shortages of basic goods, routine electricity blackouts and widespread crime -- the 16,000 people killed in an average year is triple the number who were killed the year Chavez entered office.
"The fundamental problem is that the government has just spent much more money than they had."
Shifter also predicted that a Maduro administration would not maintain warm relations with the United States. Neither country has posted an ambassador in the other country since 2008. "Maduro has to be very careful about the base of his party and following Chavez's policy toward the United States, which has been one of a lot of confrontation and aggression."
Still, he noted, Maduro is a former union official, not the paratrooper military officer that Chavez was. "So, he's somebody who has negotiated deals. I think he'd be open to at least having communication with the United States."