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The Venezuelan Election

Posted on the 24 April 2013 by Center For International Private Enterprise @CIPEglobal
Nicolas Maduro soon after his narrow election win was announced. (Photo: Washington Post)

Nicolas Maduro soon after his narrow election win was announced. (Photo: Washington Post)

By Aurelio Concheso

On Sunday, April 14, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect a president to complete Hugo Chavez´s six-year term, following his death on March 5. The speed with which the election was called had to do with constitutional mandates, but even more with the ruling party’s hope that the pro-Chavez sentiment and bereavement of his followers, coupled with the blatant use of government resources, air time, and voter intimidation, which had become a rule of elections in the times of  Chavismo, would permit a comfortable triumph for his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Indeed everything seemed to indicate that it would be so. Polls in mid-March gave Maduro a 25 percent advantage over potential opposition rivals. Once Henrique Capriles Radonsky was selected as standard bearer by the opposition, the polls at the beginning of the brief two week campaign on April 1 still gave Maduro a 16 percent advantage.

A 40-year-old governor of Miranda Sate, which compromises over half of the country’s capital, Caracas, Capriles lost the last Presidential election to a sick but incumbent Chavez by an 11 percent margin as a result of  massive use of state funds and Chavez´s undeniable charisma and popularity. Capriles had, however, recovered from this setback to be one of only three opposition governors that managed to win reelection in the gubernatorial elections that followed on December 16.

The new presidential election turned out to be an unexpected cliffhanger as exit polls during the day seesawed and indicated that results would be “too close to call.” Almost a million of former Chavez´s voters abandoned his handpicked successor and “21st Century Socialism” to vote for a centrist candidate with a long record of efficient government, first as a two-term mayor and later as a reelected governor.

This time around, abuses by government operatives, inconsequential in the past given the margins by which the elections where decided, became critical elements of a close election. “Assisted voting,” in which government employees were forced to cast their vote under the watchful eye of a superior; intimidation of opposition “witnesses” so they would abandon their posts at the voting tables; armed paramilitary gangs intimidating voters in poorer neighborhoods to keep them away from the polls: these where only a few of the tactics that shed a shadow of illegality on the process.

Since elections in Venezuela are tallied electronically (a risky practice that lends itself to manipulation in the best of cases if a paper audit trail is not honored), voters are at the mercy of the National Electoral Council (CNE) which expressly prohibits any information of results by other sources to be announced until the CNE issues its first bulletin with what is supposed to be “an irreversible tendency.” The so-called bulletin, announced near midnight, gave Maduro a razor-thin margin of 1 percent.

In a healthy democracy, there would be no question that a minuscule victory like Maduro’s would automatically trigger a recount. But this is Venezuela, where four of the five representatives on the CNE Board are loyal chavistas. With utter disregard for the popular will, the CNE declared that its tally of the vote was “irreversible.” After initially telling Capriles that he was welcome to recount the ballots, Maduro changed his tune, calling for the CNE tally to be respected. On Monday, April 15, less than 24 hours after the polls had closed, the CNE accredited Maduro as the winner to be sworn in Friday, April 19.

Realizing that conceding a close election without a fight could discourage their base from voting in future elections, the Capriles forces opted for a “full court press” in demanding a 100 percent audit of all election returns. This created strong confrontation in the streets, with the government forces radicalizing their words and actions and threatening Capriles and other opposition leaders with jail. By mid-week, however, people pressure, and the fact that even 60 percent of pro-government voters were in favor of a recount, produced reconsideration. Pressure from democratic governments, the U.S., EU, OAS, Spain, France, Brazil, and even Correa´s Ecuador among them, also played a role.

On Thursday, April 18, the Electoral College (CNE) convened to consider the formal recount petition. After an unprecedented 9 hour meeting, the CNE yielded to Capriles’ petition, the protest was lifted, and the opposition voters were asked to instead play “salsa” music during the swearing in ceremony as a sign of satisfaction with the decision. The next day, subject to his recall if the recount went against him, Nicolas Maduro was sworn in as president in a ceremony where the most conspicuous of the scant heads of state present were Ahmadinejad and Raul Castro.

Where does Venezuela go from here? No one expected it to happen so fast, but it can be said that in the evening of Sunday, April 14, the post-Chavez era started with a bang. The country now enters a transition phase which hopefully will end with its recovering its democratic traditions after 14 years of increasing authoritaniarism bolstered by Chavez’s charisma and popularity.

The heirs of the Chavez political legacy are roughly divided into several camps: far left civilian ideologues directed by Castro´s Cuba (of which Maduro is a member); center left ex-military associates of the 1992 failed Chavez Coup who are now state governors; “Boligarchs” who have made substantial fortunes whose most conspicuous faces are Diosdado Cabello, President of the Parliament and Rafael Ramirez, President of the State Oil Company; and last but not least the military hierarchy, divided itself between Chavez supporters and institutional officers. A silent struggle between these competing factions is already underway, intensified by the lack of leadership Maduro has displayed up to now.

The opposition, on the other hand, seems to have finally found a formula for continuing unity. First, it has been bolstered by an undeniably popular and competent young leadership of which Capriles is the visible head. Second, by virtue of a protest agenda including: voting fraud and the recount, demand for parity in the composition of the CNE Board, the freeing of political prisoners, and the removal of Cuban officers from military bases among others. Last but not least, by a deteriorating economic situation solely of the government’s making which, technically, could be reversed with relative ease, but would require disowning the control economy, anti-business policy, expropriations, and multiple exchange rates symbolic of “21st Century Socialism.”

Although in theory Maduro has been sworn in to complete a Presidential period ending in 2019, there are several different outcomes that can occur within a democratic context. The recount can unveil massive fraud that would lead to a repeat of the election, as happened in Peru when Fujimori´s 3rd reelection was overturned and Alejandro Toledo won the runoff. A constitutionally mandated recall election can be called as early as 2015. If a market-oriented economic liberalization is not initiated soon, higher inflation, scarcities and unemployment can create such a degree of social unrest that Maduro would be forced to resign, thus clearing the way for another election.

…… Or Maduro could learn from other pragmatic leftist leaders in South America, such as Brazil’s Lula da Silva, also an ex-labor leader, and open the economy, free the exchange rate, re-privatize nationalized money losing companies, restore political dialogue, and stimulate national and foreign investment, serving out his term with a country in harmony and a robust oil-fueled economy. By then, Henrique Capriles, if he has managed to remain the leader of the opposition, will be all of 46 years old.

Aurelio Concheso is the former president of the Center for the Divulgation of Economic Information (CEDICE) and currently serves as president of Aspen Consulting, a financial advisory and funding company.

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