In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Opposition leader gains new political clout

Venezuela’s opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ impressive show of force in Sunday’s election — despite an unfair election process in which his rival enjoyed all advantages — has turned official winner Nicolas Maduro into a politically weak president-elect.

According to official results announced early Monday by the pro-government head of the National Election Council, acting President Nicolas Maduro — the political heir of late President Hugo Chávez — won with 50.6 percent of the vote, while Capriles received 49 percent.

But even if that result were true — Capriles disavowed it, and is demanding a recount — Maduro was proclaimed the winner with a 1.6 percent victory margin, which was significantly less than Chávez’s 10.8 percent margin of victory in October’s election.

Since Sunday’s turnout was nearly the same as in October, it means that nearly 700,000 Chávez voters switched to Capriles this time, or that Capriles was able to draw voters that had stayed home in the last election.

Capriles scored an impressive result, considering the formidable state-run voting machine in support of Maduro, and election rules that were tailored to ensure a Maduro victory. There were good reasons why Capriles had called the race a David-versus-Goliath fight.

The Maduro government had called a snap election shortly after Chávez’s death to benefit from people’s outpour of sympathy toward their deceased president. Maduro not only used massive state resources from the PDVSA state oil monopoly to fund his campaign, but controlled most of the media.

Under the election rules, the opposition candidate could only use four minutes a day of paid TV propaganda, while Maduro could use 14 minutes, not counting the hours-long nationally broadcast speeches he made almost daily as acting president.

Also, the government pressed public employees — whose numbers have skyrocketed from 800,000 when Chávez took office in 1999 to 2.4 million today — to vote for Maduro, and intimidated opposition voters to discourage them from voting by leaking rumors that automatic voting machines would be able to track opposition voters.

Defense Minister Diego Molero, whose armed forces were in charge of guarding polling places, said at a public ceremony that Venezuela’s armed forces “are revolutionary, anti-imperialist, socialist and Chavista.” Many saw that statement as aimed at intimidating opposition voters, or to convince them that it wasn’t worth turning out because the military would not allow an opposition victory.

Yet, despite these and other hurdles, Capriles received nearly half or more of the vote, depending on whose side you chose to believe.

And Maduro did so poorly that his own ruling party Vice President Diosdado Cabello conceded in a tweet after Sunday’s vote that government forces needed to make a “profound self-critique” of their campaign.

Both Maduro and Venezuela’s National Election Council head Tibisay Lucena cited the 2000 U.S. election won by George W. Bush and the 2006 election won by Mexican President Felipe Calderón as examples of victories by an even smaller margin that nonetheless didn’t prevent the respective winners from serving their terms.

What Maduro and Lucena didn’t say is that Bush’s victory was conceded by his Democratic contender after a recount, and that Calderón’s victory was endorsed by international observing missions that monitored the entire election process, including access to television, while the Venezuelan government only allowed friendly observers who arrived shortly before the election to witness Sunday’s vote.

My opinion: There are serious questions about Maduro’s legitimacy.

If Maduro is so sure that he won, why did he speed up the official proclamation of his victory by pro-government electoral authorities on Monday, instead of waiting for the total recount of the vote that he himself had promised in his election victory speech? Why did the government carry out an “express” inauguration rather than doing a recount that could have given Maduro’s victory a greater legitimacy, as demanded by Capriles and suggested by the European Union, the United States and other countries?

The answer may be that Maduro knows that he didn’t win, or that he fears that Capriles’ 3,200 cases of voting violations in Sunday’s vote, plus tens of thousands of votes abroad that haven’t been counted, could turn around the official results.

So what will happen now? Maduro will start denouncing imaginary domestic and international conspiracies against his government on a daily basis — like his wild claim that the U.S. government inoculated Chávez with cancer, or that retired U.S. ambassadors are out to kill him — in an effort to divert attention from his questioned legitimacy.

He will also silence Globovision, the last anti-Chavista television network, which has reportedly been sold to government cronies, in hopes that a harsher censorship of the media will allow him to consolidate his power.

But the fact is that Venezuela’s opposition has emerged invigorated after Sunday’s vote, and that it will be hard for Maduro to impose a Cuban-styled dictatorship.

Unless he allows a total recount of the vote to prove his legitimacy, as he himself vowed to do in his victory speech, he will start his term under a cloud, and his authoritarian populist government may implode soon under the pressure of a collapsing economy, internal divisions and a re-energized opposition.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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