The chavista presidential candidate in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, claimed a “Pyrrhic victory” (by 50.7%) over his democratic opponent, state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, in yesterday’s election to choose a successor to the late leftist caudillo Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer on March 5th.
The razor-thin result is a devastating blow for the ruling party and could produce a governability crisis in a country already wracked by political polarization, economic collapse, food shortages, power outages, and criminal violence. Venezuela’s neighbors – including the US government – can promote democracy and stability now by supporting a transparent tally of paper ballots, which has been demanded by Capriles Radonski and his followers. There are even some members of the chavista movement (particularly in the military) who, doubting Maduro’s ability to manage this political crisis, might support a recount rather than have the government’s legitimacy permanently questioned.
“We are not going to recognize the results until every vote is counted,” Capriles Radonski declared last night. He also said that his campaign’s tally of the votes from various parts of the country showed a different result. Denying a claim by Maduro that the opposition candidate had called him to suggest a pact, Capriles said, “I do not make pacts with lies and corruption. My pact is with the people of Venezuela.”
Venezuela’s electronic voting system produces an automatic tally; voters also deposit into ballot boxes a paper “receipt” indicating their votes. Capriles Radonski apparently is insisting that these paper ballots be counted to confirm the accuracy of the electronic tally.
With vast state resources and access to controlled media at his disposal, Maduro failed to inspire his party’s base; a vaunted political machine that produced wide majorities for Chávez in past elections failed last night. Exit polls prepared for Maduro’s campaign showed an advantage for him in early-morning voting evaporating in the afternoon, when opposition voters flocked to the polls. A summary of results prepared by Maduro’s campaign, which I obtained last night from a Venezuelan source, showed 15% fewer votes cast in a chavista stronghold compared to last October’s election, in which Chávez claimed a final victory.
The democratic opposition has complained for good reason about the advantages that the ruling party enjoys in terms of how the campaign is conducted and how the votes are tallied. Indeed, in the past 18 months, the government has pumped $28 billion in Chinese loans into the economy to prop up social spending. The national electoral council is controlled entirely by chavista militants, and the electronic voting system was engineered by a company linked to the government. Opposition leaders say that the polling procedure is organized to sow fear about the secrecy of the vote and to support the ruling party’s get-out-the-vote apparatus.
I predicted last Friday that “Chávez’s anointed successor will not secure an uncontested mandate over his democratic opponent, and this contested election will trigger a period of instability and uncertainty for the ruling party.” The governability crisis in that important South American country could be very grave and destabilizing. As I described in that piece:
Venezuela is a country on the verge of a socioeconomic meltdown. Street crime, power outages, and shortages of food and consumer goods trouble the lives of millions of citizens. The government is running a dangerous fiscal deficit; mismanaged social programs are unsustainable. State revenues are down dramatically because the state-run oil company – packed with political cronies and plundered by Chávez to fund pet projects – is producing far less oil than it was 15 years ago. The regime has forfeited its legitimacy as senior officials are complicit with drug trafficking and terrorism. And the shameless intervention of Havana to manage the chavista succession has stirred anger among nationalists in Venezuela’s once-proud military. Confronting these challenges without Chávez at the top of the ticket, the regime has exploited every unfair advantage to engineer a convincing victory.
The international community – particularly Washington – has steered clear of confrontations with the irascible bully Hugo Chávez. However, failing to stand with the democratic elements in Venezuela today may consign that country to political turmoil under an illegitimate regime.