Although it may seem that winning was the easy part, the next task for Nicolas Maduro is to prove both to Venezuelans and the international community that he rightfully emerged victorious in Venezuela’s recent presidential elections. As tensions continue, violence and loss of life have occurred this week during protests in the South American nation, demonstrating that the first phase of post-Hugo Chávez Venezuela has been anything but smooth.
Counting Votes and Making Enemies
At the time of this writing, the opposition candidate, Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, and his followers aredemanding a recount of all votescasted last Sunday. The reason for this is due to the tiny 1.8% difference between the two contenders:Maduro won with a reported 50.8% of the votewhile Capriles obtained just over 49%, which translates to a difference of around 235,000 votes. Another reason that Capriles is arguing for a recount is thethousands of reported irregularitiesthat occurred on election day. These include the infamous voto asistido, namelyMaduro supporterswere inside voting stations coaxing citizens to vote for the acting president. (For more information on the concerns of Capriles and his supporters, I recommend reading the recent report-from-the-field bymy colleague Manuel Rueda, Latin America Correspondent for the ABC/Univision in Caracas).
So far, the interim government has refused a full audit of the votes, arguing that the National Electoral Council (CNE) has already declared Maduro as the winner. This stance has prompted protests by Capriles and his supporters, including the famous cacerolazos (citizens banging pots and pans). Nevertheless, Capriles called off a major rally that was scheduled for Wednesday, April 17.
A full recount makes sense, even if the CNE already named Maduro the winner. Nevertheless, the interim government and his chavista supporters (it sounds a little bizarre to call them Maduro-supporters) want to put this crisis behind them as quickly as possible and a full recount could take days, some say weeks. Even more, there are different scenarios if a recount does happen. If, after a recount, it is shown that Maduro won with an even smaller margin, or maybe even that Capriles actually won, the whole country could be thrown into turmoil. Maduro and his government would almost literally be between a rock and a hard place on what to do next. If, on the other hand, the recount shows again that Maduro did win, it is debatable what steps, if any, Capriles may take. He could call for fraud and demand a new election, but it is unlikely that this would occur.
The world’s awkward position
So far, there have been mixed responses to the Venezuelan elections by the international community, but it is clear that support for Maduro or for a recount is based around whether a head of state was a Chávez ally or not. For example, the governments of Cuba and Bolivia have already congratulated Maduro. Meanwhile, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has recognized Maduro and also called for “democracy and peace” in the country. Kirchner can probably relate to what Maduro is going through; even though she was re-elected in 2011, Kirchner’s popularity has struggled in the past year. Argentines took to the streets in their own cacerolazo protests last September 2012 to protest the possibility of an amendment to the Argentine constitution so that Kirchner could run for a third presidential term.
Meanwhile, Spain has called for a recount, which prompted Maduro to recall the Venezuelan ambassador from Madrid. Relations between Spain and Venezuela were confusing during Chávez’s presidency. The Spanish king, Juan Carlos I, memorably told Chávez in 2007 to shut up during a press conference. Nevertheless, Madrid has commercial interests in Venezuela, as exemplified by the Spanish company Navantia, which has constructed vessels for the Venezuelan navy.
Finally, it is unsurprising that Washington would prefer if there was a change of the guard in Caracas and Capriles emerged victorious, bringing the decade-long anti-Washington government in Venezuela to an end. So far Secretary of State John Kerry has not publicly recognized Maduro as the winner, which has unsurprisingly provoked harsh statements. For example, Bolivian PresidentEvo Morales has declared that he is convinced that the U.S. wants to stage a coup in Venezuela.
At this point, there are two levels to the debacle of the Venezuelan elections. Within Venezuela, protests continue and we will have to wait and see if a recount will be called for, and what will occur after it takes place, depending on who wins. While Maduro probably did win, it is clear that he did not do so with the ample margin that he was hoping for that would have bolstered his status as Chávez’s successor. The recent decision by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello to not allow opposition congressmen to take their posts unless they recognize Maduro as the winner is a particularly troubling development.
Outside of Venezuela’s borders, we find nations and agencies figuring out how to approach the election results. Chávez’s friends quickly supported the results and Maduro’s victory, while governments that were not keen on him will probably keep on waiting until a recount takes place or Capriles concedes. As for Washington’s ambivalence, it is obvious that this stems from almost a decade and a half of tensions with Chávez, and an undeclared hope that Capriles would emerge victorious.
Maduro’s presidential inauguration ceremony is set to take place this Friday April 19, with several pro-Chávez regional heads of state already declaring that they will attend. It will be interesting to see how Capriles and his supporters will react to this ceremony as this will give a clearer picture on the opposition’s next steps. I do not believe Venezuela will become another Syria – Venezuelan government officials have already accused Capriles of wanting to promote a civil war – but instability and protests will inevitably lead to more internal turmoil, a worsening economy and unnecessary loss of life.