CARACAS -- When Nicolás Maduro is sworn-in as Venezuela’s president Friday, he’s hoping the cheers of his supporters will drown out the sound of protesters clanging pots and pans that is expected to erupt over the city.
Less than a week after winning a contested election by less than 275,000 votes, Maduro, 50, is being accused of stealing the race by a newly empowered opposition that is demanding a recount.
Maduro, in turn, is accusing his rival, Henrique Capriles, of trying to derail democracy, inciting violence and laying the groundwork for a coup. He has also threatened to revoke Capriles’ governorship and throw him in jail.
Partisan clashes have led to at least eight deaths, more than 130 arrests and one congressional fistfight.
This isn’t how the legacy of the late-President Hugo Chávez was expected to play out.
During his 14 years in power, Chávez was an electoral juggernaut, winning four presidential races by double digit margins, the latest just six months ago against Capriles. When the socialist firebrand picked Maduro — a one-time union organizer and longtime foreign minister — to be his successor, many expected supporters to fall in line.
Instead, c havistas abandoned Maduro in droves as Capriles’ center-left platform and calls for political reconciliation struck a chord. “The general sense was that Chávez’s coattails would be very long,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Americas Program at the Wilson Center, “but that proved not to be the case.”
Even if Maduro had won by a landslide as many had expected, he would have had a tough job ahead, she said. He takes the helm of a nation dependent on oil exports that is seeing both prices and production in decline. Inflation is running 25 percent a year, and power outages and sporadic shortages of basic items — such as aspirin, toilet-paper and sugar — have soured the national mood. The nation also has the highest homicide rate in South America.
But without strong backing — it was the tightest race in more than four decades — Maduro may shy from taking painful steps needed to right the economy.
“In many ways, the results reflect a disaster for Maduro and likely signify the continued decline of Venezuela’s economy,” wrote Carl Meacham, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington; if Maduro is unable to make quick improvements in crime and inflation, “he may find himself facing a quick backlash from former supporters.”
Maduro doesn’t appear to be chastened by the close call. He has said his victory is a clear mandate to double-down on Chávez’s socialist policies and that he has no need to seek “pacts” with the opposition.
“A logical reading of the [election] results would suggest that he should be more moderate and try to open lines of dialogue,” said John Magdaleno, a political analyst with the Caracas-based consulting firm Polity. “But his statements suggest that some of the more radical elements in c havismo are flexing their muscle.”
Part of the problem is that Maduro faces challenges within his own party, in particular from National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, Magdaleno said. Cabello is thought to have the ear of his former colleagues in the armed forces and the more business-minded and moderate factions within c havismo.