Maduro_s pyrrhic victory

ELECTIONS don_t come much closer. After counting more than 99% of the votes Venezuela_s election authority announced late on Sunday night that the government_s presidential candidate, Nicol__s Maduro, had beaten his rival, Henrique Capriles of the Democratic Unity coalition, by just 1.59%. Of almost 14.8m votes cast, fewer than 235,000 separated the two candidates.

Mr Capriles and his campaign team have announced their refusal to accept the electronic vote-tally unless the electoral authority agrees to open all the ballot boxes and count the paper ballots. Their position is supported by the only opposition-leaning member of the electoral authority_s five-person board, Vicente D__az. According to Mr Capriles, the opposition logged more than 3,200 irregularities_enough, he said, to render Mr Maduro_s victory margin moot.

In a tough speech, he told Mr Maduro: _You_re the one who was defeated today_you and what you represent._ Indeed, even for those who accept the official result, the government candidate_s victory looked remarkably like a defeat.

The election was triggered by the death from cancer last month of Hugo Ch__vez, Venezuela_s charismatic and controversial president. Mr Maduro was Ch__vez_s designated successor, but in a brief, ten-day campaign he managed to squander almost all the 1.5m-vote advantage that Ch__vez had obtained over Mr Capriles just six months ago, when he was re-elected for a third consecutive, six-year term.

As Ch__vez_s long-serving foreign minister Mr Maduro, a former bus-driver and trade union leader, had earned a reputation for doing his master_s bidding but was an unknown quantity to most of the Venezuelan electorate. His political capital consisted almost exclusively of the late president_s endorsement. He faces an uphill struggle to impose his authority on a faction-ridden chavista movement that was hitherto held together by the unquestioned authority of Ch__vez himself.

Mr Maduro_s narrow victory, which many even on his own side will see as a defeat, makes that task all the more difficult. His main rival, Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer, has powerful friends in the military and runs both parliament and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. With the election out of the way the chavista movement may once again live up to its reputation as a _nest of scorpions_, as it was once described by a former deputy-chairman of the party.

Ch__vez_s legacy is a country beset with problems which Mr Maduro looks ill-equipped to solve. Inflation, which is likely to exceed 30% this year, is among the world_s highest. Many staple foods are difficult or impossible to obtain. The economy is heading for recession, despite the fact that oil, its mainstay, is selling for over $100 a barrel. That, combined with declining foreign reserves and increasing indebtedness, will force the new president to make tough decisions on funding for the social programmes that are the regime_s main claim on the allegiance of supporters.

Mr Capriles_ task is not much easier. Although he has consolidated his status as the undisputed leader of the Venezuelan opposition, he will now be under pressure to prove his claim that he was cheated of victory. With no independent institutions to turn to, his battle will be a political rather than a legal one.

With Ch__vez gone, Venezuela is on the cusp of a new era. But it remains bitterly divided, into two almost equal and apparently irreconcilable political camps. The government has no mandate for imposing the radical socialism to which it is wedded. But nor can it retreat without triggering a bitter squabble over Ch__vez_s legacy. Mr Maduro_s difficult election marks the beginning of an even trickier presidency.

The Economist

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