Sunday’s vote for president in Venezuela leaves the country polarized and the future uncertain. The margin of victory for Nicolás Maduro was less than 2 percentage points, a far narrower margin than enjoyed by Hugo Chávez, his mentor, barely six months before. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has charged fraud and demanded a recount even as the electoral tribunal has declared Maduro the victor.
Suddenly, all bets are off in Venezuela. The election should have been a cakewalk for Maduro. He enjoyed every electoral advantage. The government spent lavishly in the months prior to the elections, seeking to goose the economy and build popular conviction that life had improved under Chavismo.
The multitude of workers on the state payroll, including energy giant PDVSA, guaranteed a strong and committed voting bloc in favor of the government. The military publicly supported Maduro prior to the vote, despite a constitutional prohibition on military involvement in politics, and offered a large and visible presence at voting sites around the country while also supporting the government get-out-the-vote effort.
The official media was full throated for Maduro, while offering only the barest coverage of Capriles, endlessly reminding voters that Chávez had explicitly selected Maduro as his successor. Even the electoral calendar was manipulated in order to hold the election immediately after April 13, the Day of the National Revolutionary Militia, a juxtaposition that ensured wall-to-wall coverage of Maduro as the acting president in the role of national leader, surrounded by the Venezuelan colors, people, and history, and circumventing a prohibition on campaigning so close to the election.
And yet, with all these built-in advantages, Maduro’s margin of victory was the narrowest since the election in 1968 and the opposition is not ready to concede.
How this turns out is anyone’s guess. The country is now almost perfectly divided, but divisions also exist within Chavismo, and, already, National Assembly head and a chief Maduro rival within Chavismo, Diosdado Cabello, has called for “profound self-criticism” after the election.
Chavismo, after all, is less a unified movement and more a collection of disparate interest groups that Chávez held together through a cult of personality and deliberate application of economic incentives to gain political support. Maduro lacks the same personality or political base. As the country wakes up from its spending spree and economic conditions worsen, fissures in the movement may open and it could be more difficult to hold the Chavista coalition together.
Within this context, whoever controls the security forces will play an outsized role. At the same time, one of the real legacies that Hugo Chávez left his nation is that Venezuela has no truly independent institutions that can serve as mediator to revolve significant political differences. The independence of the Supreme Court, national electoral tribunal, legislature, and media were all compromised during Chávez’s 14-year reign. They have been turned essentially into organs of the party.
In similar circumstances in other Latin American nations, the international community has rallied to promote calm and support democratic governance. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the inter-American community has been the defense of democracy when it has been challenged.
We don’t know yet what the final determination of Sunday’s election in Venezuela will be. But we do know that the absence of international observers and an Organization of American States that is as deeply polarized as the hemispheric community offers no particular means by which to support a democratic outcome and build legitimacy for the elected leader of Venezuela — whoever that person may in fact be.
The unexpectedly close results in Venezuela, and the opposition’s refusal to concede, implies an appropriate role for the international community to investigate the outcome, observe the recount, and work to prevent violence and build democratic legitimacy. That was the theory behind involvement by the Organization of American States in Honduras in 2009, with Venezuela itself as one of the loudest agitators.
However, Venezuela and its allies have done much to limit the effectiveness of the OAS in the current circumstances. Other groups such as UNASUR explicitly exclude the United States and Canada and have neither the competency nor arguably the inclination to review Venezuela’s election results objectively.
Interesting days lie ahead.
*Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas.