Nicolas Maduro (above), the hand-picked heir to former president Hugo Chávez, is claiming a narrow victory in Venezuela’s presidential election, with 50.7% of the vote against 49.1% for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the BBC reports.
Maduro had been expected to easily win the election, “but instead, he barely took 50 percent of the vote,” Forero said, with only about 235,000 more votes.
Capriles is claiming that there was “a plot to change the result,” Reuters reports:
There was no word from the National Electoral Commission which only announces results when there is an irreversible trend. Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, called on the election authorities to close polling stations that were due to shut their doors at 6 p.m. (6:30 p.m. ET/2230 GMT), unless there were still lines of people waiting.
“We alert the country and the world of the intention to try and change the will expressed by the people,” Capriles said in a Twitter message.
A marginal, contested result was one of several problematic scenarios envisaged by analysts, but the opposition’s calls for a recount found support from a former Venezuelan oil minister and leading political commentator, who described the result as “a great triumph” for the opposition.
“This is not a whim of the opposition, this is a constitutional right granted by law,” said Moises Naim (left), an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This is a big test for democracy in Latin America,” he said, calling on the region’s leaders to take a stand against electoral irregularities.
But whoever eventually assumes office will face the daunting prospect of “a really difficult economic situation” and fragile institutions, said Naim, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
“We are entering an era of profound instability,” he said, adding that “unfortunately I think there will be an increase in social conflict.”
Even if the result is confirmed, the victory would be pyrrhic and Maduro would be vulnerable, analysts suggest.
“This is a result in which the `official winner’ appears as the biggest loser,” said Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales. “The `official loser’ –the opposition — emerges even stronger than it did six months ago. These are very delicate situations in any political system, especially when there is so much mistrust of institutions.”
“This is the most delicate moment in the history of ‘Chavismo’ since 2002,” said Corrales, referring to an attempted coup against Chavez:
The small margin of victory gives Maduro less authority to lead the broad ruling alliance that includes military officers, oil executives and armed slum leaders. It had been held together mainly by Chavez’s iron grip and mesmerizing personality.
“With these results, the opposition might not concede easily, and Maduro will have a hard time demonstrating to the top leadership of Chavismo that he is a formidable leader.”
If confirmed, Maduro’s narrow margin of victory “provides an inauspicious start for the ‘Chavismo’ movement’s transition to a post-Chavez era, and raises the possibility that he could face challenges from rivals within the disparate leftist coalition,” Reuters reports:
Chavez beat Capriles by 11 percentage points in October, showing how quickly the gap between the two sides has eroded without the larger-than-life presence of the former leader. …Even so, the result took most Venezuelans by surprise, and demonstrated that Capriles’ message on the campaign trail, where he slammed his rival as an incompetent and poor imitation of Chavez unable to fix the nation’s myriad problems, had hit home.
“The unpredictable narrow margin of the election results has proven how volatile the political scenario is,” said political analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos.
“The death of Chavez was a game changer that is leading to the gradual reorganization of political power in Venezuela, in which the armed forces will play a key role behind the scenes.”
The election raises doubts about the long-term appeal and durability of the movement that Chavez built, led and held together throughout his 14 years in power….Some supporters seemed to pay little attention to Maduro’s speech, and it was only when he played a recording of the late president singing the national anthem that they burst into life.
“It will make people in his coalition think that perhaps he is not the one to lead the revolution forward,” Smilde said.
If he does take office, Maduro ”will be tested quickly,” according to the WSJ’s Kejal Vyas and Ezequiel Minaya:
He inherits a country with the world’s largest oil reserves but with growing financial strains despite almost a decade of high oil prices. Inflation is expected to reach more than 30% this year. The government’s budget deficit ended last year at roughly 15% of annual economic output—far higher than crisis-hit European nations. And a lack of dollars has led to shortages of everything from milk to corn flour, the staple of the Venezuelan diet.
Making matters worse, rates of violent crime are among the worst in the world, power outages regularly plunge parts of the country into darkness, the state oil industry is suffering from a lack of investment and corruption is widely seen as worsening.
“I don’t know why anyone would want the job because the challenges are so many; all the problems are tightly bound around the mismanagement that took course over the 14 years of Chávez,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. “There’s going to be contraction in the economy, and Venezuelans are going to wake up and realize that the party is over.”
Should his appeal prove successful, Capriles’ “task is not much easier,” says The Economist:
Although he has consolidated his status as the undisputed leader of the Venezuelan opposition, he will now be under pressure to prove his claim that he was cheated of victory. With no independent institutions to turn to, his battle will be a political rather than a legal one.
“Meanwhile, there were also signs that the strident, Chávez-style anti-American message that Maduro used during the campaign would now be set aside to improve Venezuela’s strained relations with the United States,” The New York Times reports:
Chávez…. built his political career on flaying the United States and its traditional allies in the Venezuelan establishment, and Mr. Maduro followed his mentor’s script throughout the campaign with an acolyte’s zeal.
He accused former American diplomats of plotting to kill him, suggested that the United States had caused Mr. Chávez’s illness, and had his foreign minister shut the door on informal talks with the United States that began late last year. …But over the weekend, with his election victory looking likely, Mr. Maduro sent a private signal to Washington that he was ready to turn the page. Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, who was in Caracas as a representative of the Organization of American States, said in an interview that Mr. Maduro called him aside after a meeting of election observers on Saturday and asked him to carry a message.
“He said, ‘We want to improve the relationship with the U.S., regularize the relationship,’ ” Mr. Richardson said.
Maduro not only lacks Chávez’s charisma, but also the Teflon factor that allowed him to evade responsibility for the country’s glaring problems, says another analyst.
“As one of those bumbling and corrupt nomenklaturi under Chávez, will not enjoy a similar impunity,” writes Jon Perdue, the director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies:
Nor is he likely to enjoy an unprecedented windfall of inflated oil proceeds to fulfill the similarly inflated expectations of Chávez supporters for subsidies and giveaways in exchange for their votes and deflected blame…………….
As the fragile ground of Chavismo without Chávez begins to crumble under the feet of Maduro’s unsure steps, those once willing to tolerate the rabid clownery and the imperialist scapegoating of Hugo Chávez may begin to seek more solid ground. The rule of the diplomatically uncouth, though it makes for a good sideshow for the politically unserious, may finally be nearing its expiration date.
“With Chávez gone, Venezuela is on the cusp of a new era,” says The Economist:
But it remains bitterly divided, into two almost equal and apparently irreconcilable political camps. The government has no mandate for imposing the radical socialism to which it is wedded. But nor can it retreat without triggering a bitter squabble over Chávez’s legacy. Mr Maduro’s difficult election marks the beginning of an even trickier presidency.