The shocker in Caracas

The shocker in Caracas

Venezuela’s vice president, Nicolás Maduro, has just barely managed to ride a wave of emotion triggered by the death of the late ex-president Hugo Chávez to claim victory as his successor. On Sunday, Maduro beat opposition leader Henrique Capriles by a little over one percentage point (roughly 200,000 votes), according to the official tally. Maduro now faces two problems: First, his margin of victory was much smaller than what recent polls were suggesting, and second, Capriles is not accepting the results.

Following Hugo Chávez’s death, his popularity soared and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched in grief. When elections were called barely a month ago, emotion for Chávez helped Maduro hold a comfortable double-digit lead in the polls. But a series of mishaps, together with a strong showing from Capriles, made the difference evaporate to within the margin of error. The way the numbers were moving over the past week suggests that the declared winner would have lost the election if it had been held a few days later.

Late turnout appeared to make the difference for Maduro. It was clear from the start that all of the resources of the state would be used to get him elected. Maduro named Rafael Ramírez, the president of the state oil company and the man with the fattest checkbook in the nation, as "Head of Mobilization." The government spent lavishly in getting its voters to the polls to make sure they voted for Maduro. But despite these advantages, only a slim majority of voters appear to have done just that. Both parties now head into a controversial audit procedure. The candidates have already said they want all the boxes opened. Venezuela’s electronic voting system produces a paper trail, but only half of the boxes are opened on election day. The votes are counted and compared to automatic vote tallies. Particular attention will be paid to rural voting centers, where Maduro may have made up a sizeable chunk of his difference. Votes abroad, which should number about 70,000 in favor of Capriles, will also need to be counted.

If confirmed, Maduro will try to finish Chávez’s term, which lasts until 2019. In the short term, he will have to contend with serious economic problems, declining oil production, crumbling infrastructure, and a soaring crime wave that has made Venezuela one of the most dangerous places on earth. He will also face questions about his legitimacy, both from his own camp and the opposition.

How exactly Maduro will tackle these issues is a mystery. The campaign gave voters little insight into his approach to governance. Maduro used his campaign to cast himself as Chávez’s heir — and that was basically it. More importantly, he hasn’t even begun governing and his popularity is already dropping. It appears that the more voters see of Maduro, the less they like him. This is a serious problem for a government in need of drastic reform.

In order to boost lagging oil production, the state oil company will have to invest billions of dollars. This may require going to international capital markets and borrowing at credit-card interest rates (Venezuela’s current lending rates are among the highest in Latin America). It also means that Venezuela´s foreign partners will have to stop being the government’s punching bags. They will demand tax breaks and other benefits in order to make investment profitable.

Key among these investments will be repairing the Amuay refining complex, the largest in the world, which practically burned to the ground a few months ago. The accident forced Venezuela to import gasoline and other refined products at pricey market rates in order to maintain its insane policy of giving away gasoline for free — a costly, regressive subsidy that Maduro will have to consider reforming.

Venezuela also faces a soaring fiscal deficit, caused in part by the myriad of populist promises both Maduro and Chávez made in order to win two elections in a row. As the sole exporter in the country, the price at which it sells foreign currency determines in large part how much income the government receives. Yet even after devaluing the currency twice, the fiscal deficit is still large, and tax hikes and/or spending cuts will be required.

The inherent tension in Venezuela’s economic situation is that a government that believes in socialism uses promises of capitalist consumption to win elections. Maduro will soon learn that it is hard to preach communism and austerity when you’ve been giving away apartments, dishwashers, and cell phones in order to get people to like you.

As for Capriles, his narrow loss cements his leadership of the opposition. As he leads his forces into an uncertain recount process, he will continue shedding light on Venezuela’s grossly unfair electoral system. He will need to use his considerable political capital to steer opposition Venezuelans through the turbulent times ahead. Judging by the early reaction to his speech, the opposition — officially, half of the country — seems to be coalescing around him.

With no more elections coming up in the short term, one of Capriles’ main tasks will be to find a way of preparing Venezuelans for the coming economic collapse. Maduro, a former bus driver without a college education, does not seem to understand how to solve Venezuelans’ many problems. As the memory of Hugo Chávez fades, Capriles and his team need to forcefully present an alternative vision of what Venezuela can be. It remains to be seen if the tightening noose around the country’s media will allow him the visibility to formulate such a vision.

Maduro is the man in charge, but he begins his tenure as a weak President. With the economy quickly crumbling and his legitimacy in question, it would not be surprising if his popularity took an increasingly serious tumble in the coming months. Some in the opposition believe the Armed Forces do not respect Maduro, and they resent the increasing influence his Cuban advisors have inside the military. If he proves inept in his handling of the country’s increasingly complicated economic situation, the military may feel the need to act.

In that regard, one could argue that the weak Maduro’s main task will be to finish his term.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his blog posts here.