LAB Editor Javier Farje, who recently visited Venezuela, analyzes the major challenges faced by the new president, after his narrow victory, to strengthen his grip on his party and the country.
Despite the predictions of some right-wing media in Latin America, there will not be civil war in Venezuela. After a turbulent and personalised election campaign, the candidate of the Chávez camp won and the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, the man who has managed to unify a fragmented alliance of anti-chavista forces, lost, but only just. The Venezuelan National Electoral Commission (CNE) has declared Maduro president-elect. Henrique Capriles demanded an impossible task: the manual recount of all the votes. This was refused but the CNE accepted one of the opposition demands – to audit the voting boxes – enough for Capriles to claim victory.
Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory in the Venezuelan presidential elections seems to have surprised many people, but for different reasons. Some believed that, in the wake of Hugo Chávez death, Maduro would sail through an election process that was marred by personal attacks and a bitterly personalised campaign. Others thought that, without Chavez, Capriles had a good chance to steal chavista votes with a centrist discourse. In fact, the status quo prevailed. More or less.
In October last year, Chávez won the elections with 54% of the votes cast. This time, Maduro won with 50.66%. This means that Maduro only lost about 3 percentage points of the earlier vote. Capriles obtained around 45% in October, whereas this time he managed 49%. It is obvious that a few voters deserted the Chavista camp in favour of the opposition candidate. Furthermore, the high turnout would have benefited Capriles with an extra 1 to 2%. And that’s it. Nothing more.
However, it is worth noting that Nicolás Maduro was not able to capitalise on the wave of sympathy caused by the death of Hugo Chávez. The chavistas have lost votes and that should be enough to worry the Venezuelan Unified Socialist Party. In many ways, people had been voting for Chávez more than for chavismo. The comandante had a charisma that Maduro cannot match. However, not all those votes went to Capriles. Some joined the ranks of the invisible candidate: abstention. In any case, Maduro led a lacklustre campaign, full of gaffes and statements that raised eyebrows.
He referred to his dead mentor in almost religious terms. On one occasion he said that Chávez had appeared to him in the form of a small bird to bless him and tell him to commence battle. He also said that Chávez had inspired the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope. He tried to imitate Chávez, to no avail. Many people would have turned to Henrique Capriles for answers. They did not get them. Listening to his speeches and reading his website, one found nothing new. No concrete solutions for concrete problems: crime and inflation, among other priorities.
Henrique Capriles has refused to recognise Maduro’s victory but in subsequent statements, he seemed to suggest that the audit of the votes will be enough for him to accept the results. Latest reports suggest that he will challenge the audit process or refuse to participate in it. He may have consolidated his position as the leader of the opposition, although even that is not certain. Nicolás Maduro, on the other hand, has a lot of work to do. He lacks Hugo Chávaz’s charisma and many believe that his lack of experience may hinder the the chavistas’ chances of remaining in power. And the US has refused to accept Maduro’s victory. Nothing new there.