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Maduro to take power amid questions and protests

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.

Maduro’s power, on the other hand, derives almost solely from Chávez’s endorsement, wrote Risa Grais-Targow, with The Eurasia Group.

In a sense, Maduro helped spark the legitimacy crisis. During his victory speech Sunday, he agreed to a ballot-by-ballot recount, saying, “Let the boxes speak and let them tell the truth.”

By the next day, he preferred those boxes to remain mute. Venezuela uses electronic voting machines that produce an auditable paper trail, and the National Electoral Council, or CNE, said 54 percent of the vote had been reviewed.

Maduro said those measures should suffice, and many international election observers, and allies, such as China, Russia and Colombia, have agreed.

But other nations are on the fence. The United States will not be sending a delegation to Friday’s swearing-in and has said it will await the audit petition before recognizing Maduro.

Capriles said his camp detected more than 3,200 irregularities and campaign violations that could have changed the outcome. Tensions rose when he urged followers to rally around CNE offices to press his demands. The protests left eight dead, and Maduro blamed Capriles for the bloodshed. He also banned a march in Caracas planned for Wednesday, saying the opposition wanted to fill the city with bodies and bloodshed.

Capriles canceled the march but has asked followers to bang pots and pans — a traditional cacerolazo protest — during Maduro’s swearing-in.

Brian Gonzalez, a 22-year-old travel agent, was sitting on a park bench in the Sabana Grande commercial district, as tattered campaign posters and flyers littered the ground. He said Maduro’s heavy-handed rhetoric only makes him look desperate.

“I don’t know if there was fraud or not, but it doesn’t look good. It looks like he has something to hide,” he said. “Now he’s going to be president through 2019 and we don’t even have the right to question it.”

On Wednesday, Maduro said he would agree to a full audit if the CNE calls for one. Late Thursday night, the CNE said it would audit the 46 percent of the vots that weren’t already audited. But the head of the Supreme Court has said a vote-by-vote recount is not in the cards. And some doubt Maduro can make good on his threats to attack the opposition.

“The government is in such a weak position that any radical action, such as imprisoning Capriles or other opposition leaders, could undermine its sustainability,” analysts at Barclays Bank wrote. “Therefore, we do not expect it to move in that direction.”

But Maduro’s tightest straitjacket may be Chávez, who died March 5, after an 18-month battle with cancer. Maduro has vowed to carry on his legacy. He refers to himself as Chávez’s “son” and said he would install his office beside Chávez’s hilltop tomb to better channel his wishes.

Ramón González, a 68-year-old retiree, said he voted for Maduro because Chávez told him to. And he expects Maduro to maintain all of Chávez’s policies.

“If he starts wavering, the people will know what to do,” González said. “Maduro’s there because Chávez wanted him to be there.”