Hardly Auspicious

Chávez Heir Nicolás Maduro Wins by Razor-Thin Margin

Hugo Chávez lives! Well, sort of. Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, eked out the Venezuelan presidential election by 235,000 votes. Mac Margolis on why the opposition suspects foul play.

04.15.13 11:33 AM ET

For its high drama and nerve-shattering political suspense, it was an election Hugo Chávez himself might have appreciated. After a bitterly fought campaign in a deeply divided country, the race to replace the late leader of Venezuela’s so-called Bolívarian revolution came down to a vote-by-vote tally that stretched into the small hours of this morning—ending in a decision that is likely to be talked about for years to come.

Only the result—a razor-thin 50.7 percent–to–49.1 percent victory for Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, over challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski—might have disappointed the late Comandante, who ruled this nation nearly as his personal dynasty for 14 years before dying of cancer March 5.

It was shortly after 2 a.m. in Caracas when the Venezuelan electoral council broke into the national broadcast spectrum to announce the official result: a 235,000-vote advantage for Maduro. But as elated Chávista loyalists surged into the streets, shouting “Hugo Chávez lives,” anger and disbelief also swept the country like one of the rolling blackouts that has plagued this land of 28 million in recent years.

United opposition candidate Capriles was quick to contest the electoral authorities, who declared Maduro the winner but failed to release the district-by-district breakdown of the national vote, stoking controversy. Capriles demanded a recount, refusing to acknowledge the official result until “every vote” could be verified.

This was hardly an auspicious beginning to the post-Chávez era, when political rivals on both sides of the Bolívarian barricades looked to the ballot box for signs of national healing and civic unity. The next few hours and days are likely to prove critical for the 50-year-old former bus driver, who rose to foreign minister and then to vice president to become one of Chávez’s closest confidants, as he struggles to convert the contested mandate into the moral authority to govern one of Latin America’s most polarized societies.

"If you were illegitimate before, now you are so much more illegitimate," Capriles announced shortly after the electoral results were broadcast. He accused government loyalists of trying to steal the vote, citing more than 3,000 electoral “irregularities” from keeping voting booths open after hours to trying to sending drive by hoodlums to scare voters. More than a rival candidate, Capriles said he was fighting an entire scheme of “abuse of power.”

The gravity of the moment was not lost on leaders of the Bolívarian hierarchy, such as Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, who before the contested victory enjoined Chávistas to undertake a campaign of “deep self-criticism.”

Though voting began smoothly Sunday evening, tensions flared throughout the day. Dozens of campaign militantes were arrested for illegally trying to sway undecided voters, deploying drive-by gangs at polling stations, and handing out used ballots on which the candidate’s name had already been checked.

It was just before 6 p.m., with voting booths minutes from closing, when the Venzuelan Twittersphere came alive. “We alert the nation and the world that they are trying to change the will of the people,” Capriles tweeted to his 2.7 million followers, without giving specifics. 

“The government is trying to plant a result that does not exist!” Capirles continued. “Retweet this message.” Capriles demanded that the head of the electoral commission, Tibisay Lucena, close the booths at 6 sharp to avoid potential voter fraud.

The government was quick to rebut the charges. “The ‘anti-Chávistas’ have been trying to invent an absurd notion of fraud in an automated voting system, one that is recognized in the whole world as secure, trustworthy and transparent,” volleyed Maduro’s campaign chief, Jorge Rodriguez.

Capriles’s tweet campaign was not the first hint of trouble. Venezuelans have received widespread praise for one of the most technologically advanced electoral systems, by which state-of-the-art digital voting machines deliver national results—and without apparent security glitches—just hours after the polls closed.

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Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, known for monitoring controversial elections worldwide, once called the Venezuelan vote “the best electoral system in the world.” But the vociferous Venezuelan opposition has long called attention to the system’s vulnerabilities and official attempts to bend the electoral rules and restrict independent oversight on Election Day.

For months—or years, for skeptics—the national voting process had been under close scrutiny, in Venezuela, and abroad. Worse, Venezuela had all but closed its doors to international auditors, rejecting election monitors from the Organization of American States with a long tradition in election monitoring in Latin America. The only outside monitors allowed were from UNASUL, a recently formed league of South American nations (minus the United States) that Chávez himself had lobbied to create and shape.

“As a result, it is most likely that the upcoming electoral process in Venezuela will not have an international observer capable of condemning the unfair tactics of the incumbent government to prevent a free and fair contest,” the Human Rights Foundation, an Oslo-based civic group, warned earlier this month.

Not surprisingly, representatives of Venezuela’s competing political parties reported irregularities, ranging from attempts to intimidate voters to official minders denying campaign auditors access to polling stations.

It was a tense, but fitting culmination to one of the most fiercely fought political campaigns in Venezuelan history. As Latin America’s hyperpolarized nation awoke Monday morning, eager to learn who would preside over this oil-rich nation and inherit the self-styled revolution Hugo Chávez started 14 years ago, the only certainty was that the battle for Venezuela was far from over.