Venezuela News: Aftermath of Election Continues to Roil the Country

The situation in Venezuela will likely remain unstable for the next months, if not years. Two days ago, new Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro swore in his new cabinet while the opposition, lead by his contender Henrique Capriles, keeps disputing his poll victory by calling for a vote recount. The country is once more enmeshed in a deep political crisis and instability as thousands of anti-Maduro protesters take the streets, leading to violence and deaths.

The opposition is bolstered by the good result obtained by Capriles this April. Indeed, about 260,000 ballot papers separate Maduro from Capriles, that is about a 1% point difference. This is a great setback for Maduro, especially if we consider that during the October 2012 presidential elections, the late Hugo Chavez won against Capriles with a 10-percentage points difference. Between the two elections, Maduro lost more than 600,000 ballot papers!

Such evolution exhibits the considerable polarization of Venezuelan society. Had the 2013 presidential elections taken place a week later, or today, we might have ended up with Capriles' victory altogether. Maduro is no exception to the rule that succeeding charismatic leaders is always a perilous enterprise and rarely a success.

Maduro faces two major difficulties that play into the hands of Capriles and the opposition in general. First, with the steep decline of the votes in favor of the one who considered himself as "the son of Chavez," the Chavist faction is greatly weakened. Maduro will most likely, if not already, face criticism from his own base who would blame him for the poor results at the last elections. Second, the representativeness of the Venezuelan democracy has been weakened since the ability of the country’s electoral institution to organize fair elections is being questioned by the opposition.

This might, in fact, be the opportunity for Capriles to gain the upper hand. His campaign was far better than that of Maduro, as he promised to strengthen national unity and that he would maintain Chavez's social programs. The latter point was particularly reassuring for a large part of the society, which has seen its purchasing power going down after the government devaluated the bolivar in February 2013 by about a third against the dollar. That devaluation increased the price of imported basic food commodities.

As for Capriles, his refusal to acknowledge the results is more tactical than political. First, he must dedicate all his efforts at maintaining his leadership in the opposition by championing the anger towards President Maduro. This might be harder said than done, because the opposition is composed of a wide spectrum ranging from the far left to the Republican right-wing parties. They therefore lack a common ideological denominator. Additionally, he might be losing the grip on the opposition as violence is escalating.

Yet, time seems to be on his side. Capriles will probably dedicate all his efforts at keeping the opposition assembled against Maduro until the legislative elections in 2015. Besides, in three years, he can resort to the recall referendum, as provided by the Venezuelan constitution, to determine whether Maduro should be recalled from office.

Capriles is in a somewhat comfortable position, but one unknown remains: the role of the army. If the climate of violence keeps spreading, chances are the army, who recently acknowledged the victory of Maduro, could become an obstacle.