Game of Thrones, Caracas edition

Game of Thrones, Caracas edition

After last Sunday’s disputed electoral victory by Chávez heir Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela, it seemed, was a country on the brink. Many commentators assumed that further anarchy was unavoidable, positing mass unrest along the lines of the Arab Spring (in which the demonstrators triumphed) or post-election Iran in 2009 (where they didn’t). Both scenarios, it should be noted, assumed an uptick in violence. As assumptions go, this was logical enough. In Venezuela, society is divided almost equally between pro-regime and anti-regime groups, and the confrontation between the irresistible force of passionate opposition and the immovable object of government intransigence seemed likely to result in the violent destruction of one or both.

And then, all at once, the immovable object moved, leaving the irresistible force a bit unsure about how to proceed….

In the immediate wake of the election, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles and his supporters called for a full recount of the votes, based on the extremely narrow margin of Maduro’s victory. For days the National Electoral Council (CNE) — a body that, while nominally independent, is dominated 4-1 by avowed government supporters — had repeatedly declared itself firmly against that demand.

Yet on Thursday night, after a nine-hour deliberation session behind closed doors, the Council announced that, given the extraordinary circumstances, they were prepared to allow for an open audit of the 46 percent of electoral centers that had not already been covered by the 54 percent "instantly" audited under the country’s electronic voting system. When Venezuelans vote, the machine emits a printed receipt, which the voter then checks and deposits into a sealed container. When audited, a sample of 2/3 of the receipts are checked against the electronic records to see if they match. The decision means that a 100 percent audit of the centers will occur, but not according to the terms Capriles and his supporters had previously been insisting upon (a full recount of every single receipt).

In a press conference held soon afterwards, Capriles accepted the ruling. The process is slated to take place over the next month, during which time several hundred boxes will be reviewed daily in front of observers from either camp.

The reactions among Capriles’ supporters to this compromise have been mixed. Some approve, while others strongly reject it. The opposition candidate will now face a vital thirty-day struggle to keep fissures within his own base from undermining his role.

"This is a huge victory for the opposition camp," says José Morales, a professor at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas. "The audit is quite likely to open a can of worms for the government, evidencing further irregularities such as multiple and ghost votes, which will deeply undermine Maduro’s legitimacy."

Others, however, are less sanguine. There is concern that the thirty-day process is simply a ploy for stalling the opposition’s momentum, and that the government would never have offered such a deal if there were any risk that it might lose. Despite the pending audit, Nicolás Maduro, the government candidate, was actually sworn into office Friday at a surreal inauguration event that was boycotted by most of the opposition and several prominent heads of state. Hugo Chávez was in attendance, in a sense, as a recording of the deceased president — introduced as the Supreme Commander of the Revolution even in death — singing the national anthem was blared across the inauguration. (Just to make things even weirder, at one point a random man ran over to Maduro during his speech and wrested the microphone away so that he could introduce himself to the audience.)

Yon Goicoechea, a well-known opposition figure who headed the student movement that handed the government its only clear electoral defeat back in 2007, assured me that the National Electoral Council’s supposed concession was a "farce" and that accepting it was a "national tragedy."

According to Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan minister of planning who now teaches at Harvard, this development is noteworthy above all for showing how compromised the nominally independent electoral powers actually are.

"The Electoral Council officially proclaimed a winner in 36 hours," he says. "Record time. They also swore [Maduro] in after five days, a process that usually takes three months."

When then-President Chávez won election against Capriles a mere six months ago, he points out, it only took the government seven days to audit 54 percent of the machines even though Capriles lost by a much larger margin. The remarkable increase in expedience is, given the circumstances, suspicious.

"It was internal and external pressure that forced this concession," says Hausmann. "Brazil and UNASUR’s support for Maduro was conditional on a recount. This illustrates the ridiculousness of the CNE’s claims to represent the law. It took them the better part of five minutes to change their mind when the government asked that the recount go through."

By securing concessions from the Bolivarian Revolution and wresting a narrow electoral showing from a candidate that had been 20 points ahead mere weeks earlier, Capriles has already accomplished much that would have previously seemed impossible. Yet miracles somehow seem less noteworthy in hindsight, and assuaging the passions and doubts of his supporters during the next month will likely require new magical feats. Otherwise: a long winter is coming. 

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.