In the wake of Venezuela's contested election, will Nicolás Maduro bring the fractured country together or tear it apart?
LA VICTORIA, Venezuela — Marcos Oropeza is sure that Henrique Capriles Radonski won Sunday, April 14's presidential election; Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) says otherwise.
"The council allowed the government to steal the election," says Oropeza, 34, a heavy-equipment operator in the north-central state of Aragua. "They turned a blind eye to [acting President Nicolás] Maduro and his use of state funds during the campaign, and they turned a blind eye to the constant propaganda that flowed on the state television station. And now they say that Capriles lost? I have my doubts, and I am sure there are millions of people like me."
Maduro won the snap election -- called following the March 5 death of Hugo Chávez, who had himself won reelection over Capriles in October 2012 -- with 7.505 million votes, or 50.7 percent. Capriles, who polls had trailing far behind Maduro, racked up 7.270 million, or 49.1 percent, according to the CNE. But Capriles immediately called foul and said he wouldn't accept the results unless the agency undertook a full audit.
"We are not going to recognize the results until every vote is counted," said Capriles after the CNE released preliminary results. "The people's voice is sacred and needs to be respected. The people's will is everything."
At least one CNE board member, Vicente Díaz, also called for a full recount, citing irregularities during the vote ranging from intimidation to posting campaign posters too close to ballot sites. The unfolding impasse promises to plunge Venezuela into its worst political crisis since a 2004 recall vote against Chávez resulted in almost a yearlong governmental and economic paralysis.
"This is the worst possible political scenario," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. "Maduro is facing doubts about his legitimacy and is going to face challenges from both within and outside his political base."
That's bad news for Venezuela, which is suffering through a grim economic malaise though it sits atop the world's largest oil reserves. Politically, the country is polarized into roughly two equal parts, each diametrically opposed to each other.
"I think Maduro won, but I can't be sure," says Jose Luis Tinaco, 38, a computer technician in Caracas who voted for Maduro. "I thought he would have won by hundreds of thousands of votes. Instead, he just managed to get by, and who knows what he did to win. I really wonder what is going to happen now."
Maduro's poor showing surprised many. At the start of the campaign, the mustachioed former bus driver was thought to be invincible. Not only did he have access to the government's financial resources, but he also had Chávez's political party mechanism firmly behind him.
Maduro, who had been named vice president shortly before his predecessor's death, also took pains to remind voters that the vote was a referendum on his former boss's legacy. He constantly called himself a "son of Chávez" and tried to imitate his predecessor at every opportunity. He adopted Chávez's folksy speaking style and often broke into song or dance at campaign rallies.
Unsurprisingly, most polls forecast that Maduro would win by between 5 and 15 percentage points. Maduro himself boasted that he would gain 10 million votes and smash Capriles in the process. But a series of missteps -- including the absurd claim that Chávez had appeared to him as a bird while he was praying -- marred his campaign.
"Maduro ran on emotion, and that was a mistake," says Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political analyst. "Capriles addressed the real problems of everyday life."
The country's worsening economic situation also played a huge role. After February's 33 percent devaluation of the bolívar, inflation -- already the highest in the region -- worsened. Shortages of basic foodstuffs such as cornmeal, sugar, coffee, cooking oil, and meat became severer.
"The bolívar isn't worth anything anymore," says Antonio Alvarez, 63, a farm laborer in the village of El Consejo, Aragua, who voted against Chavismo for the first time in 14 years. "I support my family back in Colombia, and the devaluation killed me. I can't buy anything with the bolívar now. And it's Maduro's fault."
Overall, there was a shift from the October presidential vote of about 4.5 percent of the voters to Capriles, estimates Mark Weisbrot, co-director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "Shortages, the devaluation, and inflation were all to blame," he says.
To ensure that the election would be held as close to within 30 days of Chávez's death, a stipulation mandated by the Venezuelan Constitution, the CNE dictated a short campaign of only 10 days. Critics charged that Maduro actually had been campaigning since December, as he had been one of the few people to know the gravity of Chávez's illness. "If the election had been held in June, Maduro would have lost," says Yorde.
Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, promised Sunday night to press the CNE to address more than 3,200 irregularities that his backers submitted during the vote. One video showed a red-shirted Maduro backer escorting voters to the polling booth, in clear violation of laws that say voters must have complete privacy while voting. More than 40 people -- from both parties -- were arrested for electoral offenses during the vote.
At a news conference Monday, Capriles asked the CNE not to proclaim Maduro the winner until a recount is done. He said he intendeds to deliver documents alleging violations Tuesday and called for a protest Monday at 8 p.m.
The CNE, which is theoretically independent but in practice very politicized, has been under constant attack since the 2004 referendum on Chávez. Capriles and his backers have charged the agency with bias and turning a blind eye to the government's alleged abuses, including the use of state funds to finance Maduro's campaign.
"The CNE director, Tibisay Lucena, made a huge mistake when she attended Chávez's funeral wearing a pro-government armband," says Yorde. "That only reinforced suspicions that the agency was biased."
Making matters worse was the revelation a few days before the vote that a Maduro supporter had the access code for all the country's voting machines. Speaking on behalf of the CNE, Lucena said that the supporter's possession of the codes wasn't a grave offense, further raising suspicions about her impartiality. Now, the agency will have to decide whether to audit all the ballot boxes, as Capriles has demanded, or just the 54 percent warranted by law. "I don't think the agency has the technical ability to audit all of the ballot boxes," says Yorde.
A full recount could take weeks.
And as the politicians dicker, Venezuelans will continue to suffer as the country's economic crisis worsens. Although poverty was reduced under Chávez, the economy has been hard hit by mismanagement, price and foreign exchange controls, and a plethora of subsidies, which have been fixed costs for the government.
"Maduro will be facing big economic challenges in six, seven months," says Yorde. "And he has two options: He can either opt to turn to the center, or he can become more radical."
If he adopts the former, he may run afoul of Chavistas who are loath to abandon any of the late president's policies. In that camp is the powerful finance and planning minister, Jorge Giordani, who is aligned with Elías Jaua, the foreign minister and former vice president.
The problem is that Maduro's slight margin of victory will hinder his ability to forge alliances necessary to take meaningful steps to address economic issues. Yorde said Maduro may try to bring some opposition parties, including Acción Democrática, a party Chávez particularly scorned, into his government.
Either way, Maduro will have his hands full, grappling with a country not only divided but in economic peril. And his tenuous legitimacy as the heir to Venezuela's outsized leader has many wondering whether he's the right man for the job. "Maduro is no Chávez," says Oropeza. "He should recognize that even with all of the state money he used for his campaign, he still couldn't win. He is a poor imitation of Chávez."
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