By Lawrence Powell
In a closer-than-expected Venezuelan presidential election held last Sunday to replace the late Hugo Chávez, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has refused to recognise the result, calling it "illegitimate" and fuelling violent protests.
Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's preferred successor, received 50.8 per cent of the votes to Capriles' 49 per cent. Voter turnout was high, at 79 per cent, just short of the 80 per cent reached in last October's Chávez-Capriles matchup.
As election results were announced in central Caracas, there were jubilant celebrations by Chavistas, with fireworks and honking car horns. But in the suburbs, Capriles supporters were in an angry protest mood, banging pots and pans loudly in the streets, and lighting fires.
Pointing to what he claimed were voting irregularities, Capriles promptly accused the ruling party of election fraud, and said he will not accept Maduro's victory until a full audit of the results is carried out by the National Electoral Council (CNE). "I don't make pacts with those who are corrupt or illegitimate," said Capriles, who is demanding a manual recount of every single vote cast.
As of Sunday night, Maduro initially said he would gladly accept a full recount. "If they want to do an audit, then do an audit. We have complete trust in our electoral body." Vicente Diaz, one of the members of the electoral council, also publicly expressed support for an audit.
But, by Monday, the narrative had changed, leaving the impression that the government was reneging on its promise. Tibisay Lucena, president of the CNE, announced to the media that all of the proper auditing checks had already been undertaken as part of Venezuela's elaborate standard process of verification, and that a manual recount was, therefore, unnecessary.
Venezuela uses electronic machines to tabulate votes, rather than handwritten ballots. When each vote is cast, the machine automatically issues a printed receipt that confirms, and serves as a record of, that vote. This is more reliable, and less susceptible to tampering, than, say, the machines used in the US, where absence of a printed receipt means one never knows whether the vote was, in fact, registered as you cast it.
As part of CNE's standard protocol, 14 audits had already been conducted before and during the voting process, to ensure correct functioning of the system. CNE had audited a sampling of 54 per cent of the vote, with observers from all parties present - which Lucena explained is "a statistical proportion that in any part of the world is considered excessive".
Citing the importance of maintaining rule of law, she then added that "candidate Capriles ... has refused to recognise the results announced by this body. That is his decision, but in Venezuela a state of law exists which must be respected."
Carlos Alvarez, head of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) observer mission which was present throughout Sunday's voting, also chimed in with assurances that UNASUR had observed "wide exercise of citizenship and freedom" during the election, and that, therefore, "results emitted by the National Electoral Council should be respected, as the competent authority on this matter".
Satisfied with the results of a thorough electronic voting system widely regarded as "the best in the world", Venezuela's five-member electoral commission then smugly announced that the results were "irreversible", and proceeded to declare Maduro the president-elect, with the formal swearing-in ceremony to be held April 19.
This, in turn, further outraged opposition supporters, leading to more protests. There have been at least seven confirmed deaths and 61 injuries so far throughout the country, in the aftermath of the elections.
For Jamaica, what's at stake in all of this post-election haggling is that Maduro is the candidate most devoted to continuing Chávez's generous PetroCaribe arrangements, which provide discounted oil through concessionary loans. To date, Jamaica has benefited to the tune of US$2.4 billion from those arrangements. Even though, as PetroCaribe Development Fund head Dr Wesley Hughes recently indicated, Venezuela may at some point have to review its terms, a favourable arrangement for Jamaica is clearly more likely to survive under a Maduro administration.
Maduro has also agreed to honour Chávez-inspired regional alliances like ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), and to continue pursuing the close relationship and economic exchanges with Cuba. Capriles, in contrast, lacks the Bolivarian ideological commitments that led to all of those regional arrangements in the first place, so would likely consider discontinuing or replacing them.
With such a narrow mandate, and a split nation, Maduro will have a tough time governing during the next six years. The razor-thin margin leaves his political legitimacy less firmly anchored than Chávez's was. That perceived weakness, in turn, provides encouragement for further destabilisation attempts by opponents in concert with the US - something that was constant during the Chávez years and included an unsuccessful 2002 attempted coup.
And there are mounting problems to be solved in Venezuela that have accumulated during the Chávez years - including escalating crime and murder rates, corruption, periodic shortages of food staples, and nearly 30 per cent annual inflation.
In particular, the country's heavy economic dependence on oil - with 95 per cent of export earnings deriving from oil and roughly 45 per cent of government revenues - means that if oil prices should dip on the international market with countries like the US producing more of their own, there will be less in Venezuela's national coffers with which to continue the expensive 'social missions' that ensure votes.
Will a less charismatic, less commanding former bus driver like Maduro be able to overcome all of those challenges, and unify the country's resolve to continue its progressive Bolivarian reforms? As memories of Chávez fade, Maduro will have to develop his own persona, beyond the overworked campaign slogan that he's 'the son of Chávez'.
Lawrence Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and a former senior lecturer at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
April 20, 2013