Venezuela's disappointing election aftermath
April 19th, 2013
10:37 AM ET

Venezuela's disappointing election aftermath

By Christopher Sabatini, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Christopher Sabatini is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. The views expressed are his own.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. When the Venezuelan government announced in March that it would hold elections on April 14 to replace the deceased former President Hugo Chávez everything seemed to favor Chávez’s handpicked replacement, Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Only six months earlier, Chávez – battling cancer at the time, though it was unknown to the voters – handily beat the same opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by 11 percent.

But despite the massive outpouring of public grief for Chávez, and the government’s near monopoly control over the media and public resources, Maduro managed to lose more than 1,000,000 votes between October’s contest and last Sunday’s. As a result, it was an unexpected squeaker of an election – 50.7 percent for Maduro and 49.1 percent for Capriles, with a mere 270,000 votes separating the two.

What had happened was that 14 years of economic and administrative mismanagement had finally caught up with Chávez’s political heir. Lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Maduro struggled during the campaign to evoke the image of the popular leader, even claiming that Chávez had appeared to him in the form of a little bird. But it wasn’t enough. With inflation close to 30 percent, food and electricity shortages throughout the country, and two recent devaluations that have lowered the value of the Venezuelan currency the bolivar by more than 30 percent, voters demonstrated that in the post-Chávez era they are going to be more issue-oriented.

In reality, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise; when he was alive, President Chávez’s approval ratings always stood above popular assessments of his government’s performance in public opinion polls. But clearly, it caught the Chavista government by surprise, which thought that the warm and fuzzy memories of their founder would last longer than six weeks.

The closeness of the election also sparked opposition demands for a recount, and what followed briefly were a series of street protests and demonstrations from both sides that resulted in seven dead. Contesting the election results had become a common response from the opposition since it initially refused to accept the results of the 2004 recall referendum and then (unwisely) refused to participate in the 2005 legislative elections. In most Venezuelan elections, violations had actually occurred before voting day in the unfair advantages the government had over media and resources.

This time, though, the request for a recount or at least a partial audit makes sense. In a country now split down the middle, in which distrust and polarization seem to grow daily, a recount offers an opportunity to rebuild confidence and at least a modicum of transparency. At first, at least, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, supported the idea. And on Wednesday, the White House issued a statement calling for respect for the rights of peaceful assembly and an audit of the election results, while carefully avoiding endorsing Maduro’s election.

But any hopes that the humbling victory for Maduro would moderate his government were dashed in his reactions to the demonstrations. While the Venezuelan electoral commission on April 18 agreed to conduct an audit of the remaining 46 percent of the voting precincts, the actions of the government leading up to the decision spoke volumes about how it sees dissent. The acting president warned that he would respond to any demonstrations with a “firm hand,” called the opposition fascists, claimed they were plotting a coup, threatened several leaders with arrest, and accused the United States of being behind the turmoil. These were all standard tactics under Chávez, only now they had a sharper edge and came from a position of considerable weakness on the part of the government.

Sadly, the international community has failed to step up to call for a transparent audit of the results. We may never know how much backroom bargaining produced the electoral commission’s concession, though we can assume it was raised quietly. But the rush to endorse the election results even before the audit and after the government’s anti-democratic bombast betrays any quiet diplomacy that may have produced the audit.

The new grouping of South American governments, Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR), is expected to endorse the results today, and Insulza has accepted Maduro’s election, although he reiterated his plea for a recount.

As a result, the regional community implicitly endorsed the bullying and vitriolic tactics of this government, which have shut down the rights of citizens to protest and rendered the much-needed recount a mere exercise rather than real test of electoral integrity. Moreover, there has been little discussion of any role for credible outside election monitoring organizations to observe the process, a point that is key given the lack of confidence the opposition has in the process and the pattern of political favoritism of the electoral commission.

Almost twelve years ago, the OAS that Insulza now sits atop signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter. That document promised to protect the checks and balances of representative democracy and minority rights, even against the abuses of elected authorities. At the time, it was hailed as a revolutionary collective commitment to popular sovereignty and political and civil rights and a way of ensuring citizens’ demands would be heard over and protected from the abuses of their governments.

One of the worse outcomes of the positions by UNASUR and Insulza to rush to accept the elections and not insisting on international oversight of the audit is that they have closed down international recourse for approximately half of Venezuela’s citizens who do not support this government. Instead, this 49.1 percent of the voters is expected to simply accept an election produced under an unfair playing field.

The decision by the government and the electoral commission to reverse course and conduct an audit should be applauded, but a broader effort to respect the rights of the opposition to protest and help build confidence in the audit process would help set a new positive note for Venezuela’s post-Chávez era. Unfortunately, few regional governments appear willing to say that publicly.

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Topics: Venezuela

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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    Let's hope that Nicolas Madero comes through with this recount. The very last thing we all need is another right-wing stooge in Latin America waiting to carry out orders from Washington D.C.!

    April 19, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  2. moderateGuy

    Doubtful the creepy socialist got more than 20% of votes in reality.

    April 19, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  3. al horvath

    Why should the Chavez crowd give up anything. They control the government, they control the military, they control the police, they control the security services, they control the media and they control much of the economy. Have th Castro brothers given up power? Marxist don't give up power.

    April 19, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • wjmccartan

      Gee al horvath, you sound like another right-wing, ignorant Tea Partier. Venezuela is a democracy and not the pseud kind usually set up by the Washington bureaucrats like those in South Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, etc. If the Venezuelans didn't like the Socialists, they would have voted the out of office!

      April 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
      • wjmccartan

        Sorry for the misprint, horvath. Imean to print "pseudo", not "pseud" as I did above.

        April 20, 2013 at 11:32 am |
      • wjm

        Hey you bone smoking, donkey diddling, lover of feces, stick to using your own name. Jack off!

        April 21, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
  4. JAL

    Fareed, Chechnya. Please explain it to me...

    April 19, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
    • Patrick

      Fareed doesn't have to JAL, but I will. Chechnya is a tiny country in southern Russia striving to achieve it's well deserved independence from that country. In fact, it took the Russians 22 years(1837-1859) to conquer that country. Unlike the Russians, these people are descendants of the ancient Avars who conquered that region in the 6th century AD.

      April 22, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Maduro's narrow victory had deeply divided Venezuela into two camps. Those who voted for him see Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution" as the solution to their woes and the opposition, that thinks Chavez's legacy will ruin the country further more. Despite Venezuela's oil-wealth, basic items such as nappies, milk, butter and corn flour are often in short supply and power cuts are not uncommon.
    It's quite unlikely that Maduro would have the double-digit inflation under control, which is threatening to wipe out the effects of increases in the minimum wage. The crime rate is high and as a result of impunity, criminals are seldom prosecuted. Soon it will be his voters who take to the streets.

    April 22, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  6. johnny vistar

    I used to worry for Venezuela under that nincompoop Chavez. I now worry even more for Venezuela. Another more cartoonish guy takes over power. This will not do.

    This newly 'elected' fellow was formerly working as a driver. And he is a real idiot. In his one of his long winded incomprehensible recent speeches – he swore he talked to Chavez lately, and that Chavez appeared to him in the form of – a little bird. Now dont you think Venezuela's already precipitous economy will this time surely slide into deep poop, under such a character's management?

    April 23, 2013 at 1:03 am |
  7. Carlos Gimenez

    As a Venezuelan, I'm deeply disappointed in the narrow analysis of Mr.Sabatini. For one, there is no mention of the 8 deaths of Chavista supporters, some of them killed defending community media stations and y medical posts that were burned to the ground by assumedly Capriles supporters, on the aftermath of the elections. There was also no mention of the all-out calls by Capries supporters to burn and destroy the community centers known as CDIs, crucial medical centers for the communities in the nation. Even a very well known reporter, Nelson Bocaranda, issued tweeter calls to go after the CDIs, and well-known personalities such as Miami-based actress M. C. Alonso stating "Why can't I burn whatever I want".

    All of these actions –rejected by most Venezuelans, including key opposition figures– give credibility to the government's position that the opposition's tactic is to repeat the coup d'etat strategies of the the 2002 coup, that were very much tried in the coup against President Salvador Allende in Chile in early 1970s.

    Mr. Maduro's lack of credibility doesn't come from the folkloric tales of the street or the media, but on its inability to handle the economic and security problems. The devaluation of the currency, for instance, was completely negated since late 2012, only to be implemented as an "adjustment", which was a slap on the face to millions of working class Venezuelans.

    April 23, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  8. Matos

    Respond to Marine5484. Is better to received order from Washington,D.C. that won't be hunger and prosperity than received order from Cuba than only bring misery,hunger,no freedom and no future, ask the young people they are all over different countries separated from their family trying to find better future because in Cuba they can not find whatever they need. Jose Marti said "When the citizens from a country leave,there is something wrong in that country.

    April 24, 2013 at 9:54 pm |

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