It wasn’t supposed to go this way. When the Venezuelan government announced in March that it would hold elections on April 14 to replace the deceased former President Hugo Chávez everything seemed to favor Chávez’s handpicked replacement, Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Only six months earlier, Chávez – battling cancer at the time, though it was unknown to the voters – handily beat the same opposition candidate Hernique Capriles by 11 percent.
But despite the massive outpouring of public grief for Chávez, and the government’s near monopoly control over the media and public resources, Maduro managed to lose more than 1,000,000 votes between October’s contest and last Sunday’s. As a result, it was an unexpected squeaker of an election – 50.8 percent for Maduro and 49 percent for Capriles, with a mere 250,000 votes separating the two.
What had happened was that 14 years of economic and administrative mismanagement had finally caught up to Chávez’s political heir. Lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Maduro struggled during the campaign to evoke the image of the popular leader, even claiming that Chávez had appeared to him in the form of a little bird. But it wasn’t enough. With inflation close to 30 percent, food and electricity shortages throughout the country, and two recent devaluations that have lowered the value of the Venezuelan currency the bolivar by more than 30 percent, voters demonstrated that in the post-Chávez era they are going to be more issue-oriented.
In reality, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise; when he was alive, President Chávez’s approval ratings always stood above popular assessments of his government’s performance in public opinion polls. But clearly, it caught the Chavista government by surprise, which thought that the warm and fuzzy memories of their founder would last longer than six weeks.
The closeness of the election also sparked opposition demands for a recount, and what followed briefly were a series of street protests and demonstrations from both sides that resulted in seven dead. Contesting the election results had become a common response from the opposition since it initially refused to accept the results of the 2004 recall referendum and then (unwisely) refused to participate in the 2005 legislative elections. In most Venezuelan elections, violations had actually occurred before voting day in the unfair advantages the government had over media and resources.
This time, though, the request for a recount or at least a partial audit makes sense. In a country now split down the middle, in which distrust and polarization seem to grow daily, a recount offers an opportunity to rebuild confidence and at least a modicum of transparency. At first, at least, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, supported the idea. And on Wednesday, the White House issued a statement calling for respect for the rights of peaceful assembly and an audit of the election results, while carefully avoiding endorsing Maduro’s election.
But any hopes that the humbling victory for Maduro would moderate his government were dashed in his reactions to the demonstrations. While the Venezuelan electoral commission on April 18th, agreed to conduct an audit of the remaining 46 percent of the voting precincts, the actions of the government leading up to the decision spoke volumes about how it sees dissent. The acting president warned that he would respond to any demonstrations with a “firm hand,” called the opposition fascists, claimed they were plotting a coup, threatened several leaders with arrest, and accused the United States of being behind the turmoil. These were all standard tactics under Chávez, only now they had a sharper edge and came from a position of considerable weakness on the part of the government.
Sadly, the international community has failed to step up to call for a transparent audit of the results. We may never know how much backroom bargaining produced the electoral comission’s concession—though we can assume it was raised quietly. But the rush to endorse the election results even before the audit and after the government’s anti-democratic bombast betrays any quiet diplomacy that may have produced the audit.
The new grouping of South American governments, Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR), endorsed the results, and Insulza accepted Maduro’s election, although he reiterated his plea for a recount.
As a result, the regional community implicitly endorsed the bullying and vitriolic tactics of this government, which have shut down the rights of citizens to protest and rendered the much-needed recount a mere exercise rather than real test of electoral integrity. Moreover, there has been little discussion of any role for credible outside election monitoring organizations to observe the process—a point which is key given the lack of confidence the opposition has in the process and the pattern of political favoritism of the electoral commission.
Almost twelve years ago, the OAS that Insulza now sits atop signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter. That document promised to protect the checks and balances of representative democracy and minority rights, even against the abuses of elected authorities. At the time, it was hailed as a revolutionary collective commitment to popular sovereignty and political and civil rights and a way of ensuring citizens’ demands would be heard over and protected from the abuses of their governments.
One of the worse outcomes of the positions by UNASUR and Insulza to rush to accept the elections and not insisting on international oversight of the audit is that they have closed down international recourse for approximately half of Venezuela’s citizens who do not support this government. Instead, this 49 percent of the voters is expected to simply accept an election produced under an unfair playing field.
The decision by the government and the electoral commission to reverse course and conduct an audit should be applauded, but a broader effort to respect the rights of the opposition to protest and help build confidence in the audit process would help set a new positive note for Venezuela’s post-Chávez era. Unfortunately, few regional governments appear willing to say that publicly.
Christopher Sabatini is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas.