From the moment he announced that former President Hugo Chávez had passed away, the April 14 presidential elections were Nicolas Maduro’s to lose. And whatever the result of any proposed recount, Maduro’s 50.7 percent vote against that of the opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonsky is a sign of weakness.
He had everything in his favor: unlimited access to public resources (money, vehicles, the armed forces), the state-owned oil company PDVSA, near total control over private media, and a huge outpouring of sympathy for the once-popular Chávez who on December 8th had personally named Maduro his successor.
And yet, despite all those advantages, Maduro—compared to the vote of the October 2012 elections that pitted Chávez against Capriles—managed to lose over a million votes to the young, governor of Miranda state, making the ballot on Sunday Venezuela’s closest election since 1968.
Clearly, Maduro’s failure to live up to his political “father’s” image was not for lack of trying. He famously claimed that Chávez had spoken to him as a little bird, tried his best to summon the same emotion and combative rhetoric of the former lieutenant colonel and at last count had referred to him over 7,000 times during the campaign.
But far from this rhetoric, last Sunday 15 million Venezuelan voters proved a new pragmatism. Fourteen years of chavismo have left Venezuela with the highest inflation rates in the region, one of the highest murder rates in the world, electricity and food shortages, and unsustainable levels of public debt….all this despite the record high levels of oil prices globally. Public opinion surveys have constantly showed Venezuelans to be more pro-US and pro-market than many of their fellow citizens around the region—a fact that mystifies commentators who prefer to read Chávez as an organic outgrowth of Venezuelan political culture.The vote on Sunday proved that tired reading wrong. Given the multiple problems citizens face on a daily level and the grim outlook for the country, propaganda, coercion and clumsy symbolism failed to hold a voter base of the chavista party that at its height, in the 2000 presidential elections, won 60 percent of the vote.
The question now is what sort of president will Maduro be. For a country going through a severe economic crisis, a wall of 230 thousand votes is very hard to maintain. In most democracies such a razor thin margin would force the victor to recognize the electoral, popular weight of the opposing party and reach out across the aisle to govern. Such a gesture would go a long way towards healing the frighteningly deep levels of polarization that at times have made Venezuela seem to be on the brink of social upheaval.
But Venezuela isn’t any democracy, and the governing PSUV isn’t just any party. It is a collection of disparate groups once held together by Chávez’ personality and public plunder, and which made vilification of its political enemies its stock in trade. So an additional question is if—whatever Maduro’s inclinations may be—the party will let him be as pragmatic as Venezuelan voters are showing themselves to be.
Sadly, though, if the events in the days since the election are any indication, Maduro is not ready to be more pragmatic. In refusing to allow a re-count—something that given the margin, is a reasonable request—Maduro and his party seem to be clinging to the most hateful, nasty legacy of chavismo.
Read the version in Spanish here.