There is good reason to believe that Nicolas Maduro is not the legitimate president of Venezuela. Nonetheless Maduro was sworn into office on April 19 as Hugo Chavez’s handpicked successor after winning a tight presidential contest days before.
In the April 14 election, Maduro claimed a narrow majority—235,000 votes out of 14.5 million votes cast—over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. The opposition, however, promptly listed some 3,200 incidents of electoral rules violations that include intimidation at polling places, illegal campaigning, and non-functioning voting machines. The opposition has argued that these violations were sufficient to alter thousands of votes and tip the outcome in Maduro’s favor.
Furthermore, Maduro enjoyed massive, fundamentally unfair advantages in media access and votes obtained through patronage politics, while the opposition offered only a hope for change. The opposition demanded a 100 percent audit of all votes before conceding victory to Maduro. Its protests threatened Venezuela with violent clashes.
Domestic and international pressures forced the electoral commission to reverse itself and commit on April 18 to an audit of 100 percent of ballots, meaning Maduro took office while a recount that theoretically might unseat him goes on.
The realities of political power in Venezuela clearly give Maduro and the Chavistas the upper hand. They control the electoral commission and the Supreme Court. Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, has silenced the opposition in the legislature. The army and police are dispensing partisan justice. Moreover, Maduro has also gained the backing of powerful neighbors such as Brazil and Colombia as well as support from Cuba and Iran.
The democratic opposition lacks foreign friends other than the international media, a handful of skeptical governments, and the few who care about the state of democracy and freedom in Venezuela. Yet Capriles and company are bolstered by a solid conviction that Maduro is not the legitimate president of their country.
Secretary of State John Kerry urged a recount. The Obama Administration wants to defend U.S. interests but avoid choosing sides. While wary of the anti-American Maduro, the Administration does not want to remain isolated in the region or be seen as promoting violent division in Venezuela. It will likely find a way to acknowledge Maduro’s victory in the days ahead and seek modest improvements in relations.
Maduro will continue the motions of a recount that confirm his victory. Yet he will face a mounting crisis of governance due to weak, polarizing leadership, mounting domestic problems, infighting among Chavistas, and the nation’s growing realization that a democratically elected president was denied office.