Venezuela’s opposition leader refused to acknowledge the result of the country’s presidential election today after Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor claimed victory by an unexpectedly narrow margin.
As news broke that the socialist candidate and acting President, Nicolas Maduro, had eked out a win by less than 2 per cent in yesterday’s poll, his rival, Henrique Capriles, demanded a recount and vowed not to accept defeat “until each vote of the Venezuelan people has been counted”.
Fireworks had illuminated the Caracas skyline on Sunday night as the outcome was announced by the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE). Red-shirted chavistas took to the streets on motorbikes, flying red flags to celebrate the triumph of the man who described himself during the campaign as “Chavez’s son”. Mr Maduro, 50, secured 50.7 per cent of the vote to Mr Capriles’s 49.1 per cent – a result described by the CNE president, Tibisay Lucena, as “irreversible”.
In a victory speech outside the presidential palace, Mr Maduro told supporters he had spoken to his opponent by phone and would gladly submit to an audit of the result. “Let them open 100 per cent of the ballot boxes,” he said. “We are not afraid.”
In spite of the opposition rhetoric, election observers said the poll proceeded smoothly and fairly. “The system is very secure and it will be easy to do an audit,” said Marc Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC. “Since 2004, a significant part of the opposition has refused to accept the results of elections. Capriles is playing to that element of the opposition, but he knows these are the results.”
It is the second election Mr Capriles has lost in less than a year. Last October, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state was beaten by more than 11 per cent in a presidential race against an ailing Mr Chavez, who ruled Venezuela for 14 years before his death from cancer on 5 March. However, Mr Capriles managed to overturn some 679,099 of the votes that went against him in 2012, including that of Marcos Garcia, a 29-year-old teacher from the Sabana Grande district of Caracas.
“It’s a disappointing result,” said Mr Garcia. “I have no faith in Maduro himself. He talked so much about Chavez that it made me realise he can never replace him. We want to see Chavez’s revolution continue, but to have a President who has nothing to say for himself is not good for Venezuela.”
Other chavistas were more pleased to see Mr Maduro taking the leadership. “Venezuela was thrilled,” said Vladimir Hernandez, a teacher in Caracas. “It’s a victory for the socialists no matter what the margin. There’s no denying the facts”. Mr Hernandez planned to attend a public vigil at Mr Chavez’s grave in Caracas yesterday afternoon. “Maduro’s job is simple: continue the work of ‘El Comandante’ [Chavez],” he added. “If he does that, there won’t be a problem”.
Opposition supporters, waking up to the possibility of six more years of Bolivarian socialism, were less confident about Mr Maduro’s chances of success. According to a recent report by the United Nations, Venezuela became the most equal society in Latin America under Mr Chavez. Thanks to the income generated by its vast oil reserves, his socialist government was able to offer free healthcare and education programmes to the poor. Yet the new President also faces an increasingly divided electorate, ballooning inflation and soaring crime rates, especially in Caracas.
“I don’t believe he’ll last the full six years,” said Juan Carlos Palacio, a lawyer. “Maduro simply doesn’t have the force of character to lead this country, this isn’t over yet”.
Q&A: What happens now?
Q: Will there be a legal battle?
A: Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s anointed successor, had been expected to win by a landslide. But less than two percentage points separated him from Henrique Capriles, who claimed more than 3,000 “incidents” of election fraud took place. If a recount challenges the win, or evidence of fraud mounts, a legal battle is a possibility.
Q: Why was the result so close?
A: The result came as quite a shock for the Maduro camp. Analysts pointed to the litany of problems – such as rampant crime – left behind by Mr Chavez. But many were also said to be affronted by how heavily Mr Maduro campaigned under the late leader’s mantle. Some claimed a slightly lower voter turnout also affected his lead.
Q: What next for Venezuela?
A: Mr Maduro has vowed to carry on Mr Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution”, but he also been signalling intent to bring in changes. He is reported to have told Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, that Venezuela wants to “improve the relationship with the US”. As Mr Chavez’s deputy, he was a known quantity. Now, Venezuela is waiting for him to shake off his former master’s shadow and show himself.