In the aftermath of his electoral success on Sunday night, the new President-Elect of Venezuela made what has to be one of the most downbeat victory speeches in history. Speaking from the balcony of the Miraflores Palace, former bus driver and trade unionist Nicolas Maduro sounded defiant but – matching the mood of some in the assembled crowd of supporters below – also cut a disconsolate figure.
What should have been a moment of joy for Maduro and his supporters – victory in the first post-Chavez Venezuelan election – was undermined by the unexpectedly close result. In spite of almost all polls in the run-up to the ballot putting Maduro somewhere between 10 and 15 points clear, he beat opposition candidate Henrique Caprilles by just 2 percentage points – fewer than 250,000 votes.
In the six months since Chavez’s victory over Caprilles in last year’s general election, the Socialist Party has lost 700,000 votes, while the candidate of the right has gained an equivalent number. The romping victories of the Chavez era, which were so crucial in establishing the legitimacy required for the far-reaching reforms he undertook, are – for the moment – at least a distant memory.
In this sense, Venezuela, as the international media were desperate to point out, is now a country divided. For those observing from the outside is to crucial to restate one thing: the election (while close) was free, fair and unambiguous in its outcome: Maduro won, Caprilles lost.
Caprilles, true to form, has refused to concede the legitimacy of the result, calling for an immediate ‘audit’ of the vote. Maduro has agreed to allow the National Electoral Council to review the electoral process, but has stated that this will not alter the outcome. The opposition has so far been unable to provide any real evidence of the ‘fraud’ it alleges.
Congratulations from leaders across Latin American poured in immediately after the announcement of Maduro’s victory – probably an attempt to ward off any international attempts to delegitimise the new President. The State Department in Washington has, until now at least, kept its silence. It would come as no surprise if its eventual response was to echo the opposition’s ambivalence about the process and the outcome. The Spanish government has refused to recognise Maduro’s victory.
For the militants inside the Chavista movement, the failure to build on the momentum of last year, despite the overwhelming grief that followed Chavez’s death in February, is provoking some reflection. Eva Gollinger, a well-known author and lawyer, remarked that the election results made it clear that the move to “Chavismo without Chavez” was not going to be as easy as some had expected. The sheer force of Chavez’s personality acted as a unifying force for a movement that in his absence appears less than united.
The President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who himself might have hoped to have replaced Chavez, suggested there was a need for a moment of ‘self-criticism’ for the Chavistas. In one particularly laconic tweet, he lamented the fact that so many poor Venezuelans had apparently voted to bring ‘their exploiters back to power’.
All democratic movements, even those as electorally successful and as popular as Venezuela’s, encounter setbacks and require renewal at some point. Chavismo itself has faced electoral defeat in the past. Its opponent in this election has been on a presidential campaign for the best part of two years. Maduro had less than a month to step out from Chavez’s shadow – a job that, judging by the number of times he referenced the Comandante in his speeches, even he didn’t believe he was up to.
The first task for the new President is to ensure the legitimacy of his victory. The opposition has already organised ‘protests’ that have led to violence, including the torching of several Socialist Party buildings and attacks on private residences of state officials. Presuming that these attempts to create a crisis are unsuccessful, the more difficult tasks – deepening the revolutionary process and tackling bottlenecks in the economy – still lie ahead. Success will depend on the extent to which the Venezuelan working class continues the struggle. Only that can ensure Sunday’s victory was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.