Nicolás Maduro had all the cards in his hands: personally and very publicly anointed by Chavez himself and free to use all the resources of the state to promote himself, he was running a two-week campaign in the wake of the massive outpouring of grief that followed the death of the country’s most popular politician ever. No wonder he was universally seen as a shoo-in. The opposition, still reeling from an 11% -margin defeat barely six-months old and with little time to organize or raise money, could only hope for a miracle. It almost happened.
Maduro’s utter lack of charisma, his claim to have seen portly Chavez appear to him as a cute little bird and to have received tweets from the Chavez himself were rightly seen as crass and demeaning attempts to exploit the quasi-religious fervor in which the late leader was held, and they no doubt played a role in his disastrous performance. But the results should probably be traced to the dreadful situation in which a decade of Chavismo has placed the country. Without Chavez himself to whip the crowds, and in spite of the very real impact that his programs were having on the poorest everyday life, the utter emptiness of his legacy showed starkly: stratospheric homicide, common crime and corruption levels, the highest inflation rate in Latin America, incompetent public administration, declining oil production with the world’s largest reserves, crumbling transportation infrastructure, regular and sometimes extended electricity blackouts, and so on. The inability of his successors to move early enough to embalm the great man—decomposition was too advanced—should stand as the eternal symbol of their incompetence and disorganization. Chavez’ hyperactive and constant presence, epitomized by his weekly hours-long “Allo Presidente,” television show, had been propping up a chaotic and unsustainable “model,” and when his death put an end to the telenovela, reality came back with a vengeance.
What happens now? The opposition is asking for a full recount, but the government has decided to recant from Maduro’s commitment in the speech he made right after the results was announced, and now refuses to do it. The missing one percent of the roughly 15 million votes counted (150,000) comes mostly from outside the country, where the opposition dominates. With a difference of about 250,000 votes between the two candidates, errors on the domestic front could turn Maduro’s tight victory into a defeat. The opposition is already taking to the street and things could quickly turn very ugly. In the end, however, the opposition doesn’t have guns and the ruling party, its militias, and the army do: the rebellion should quickly be quelled, though possibly in blood.
Over the medium term, what the opposition does may matter less than what happens within Chavista ranks. Chavez had been stuffing an ever-expanding state with his followers and for them, who have everything at stake in staying in power, Maduro has proven to be a huge liability. The problem is also acute for the Cuban regime, whose economy has become deeply dependent on the injection of cheap oil from Venezuela. Maduro, who held power strictly by virtue of Chavez’ trust and support, finds himself in a desperate position: the kind of reforms needed to put the country back on track call for a kind of leadership and a legitimacy he doesn’t possess. The problem is, nobody among his “colleagues” has them either.
Those who could lose everything in the next elections, six years down the road, have two options: grab as much as they can, while they can, or make sure that, even without reform, they win the next context. The first path leads to a deepening economic and social crisis, the second one to a crisis of the country’s political institutions. In this landscape, the military is likely to become increasingly central. As an institution, they have less at stake than the Chavista establishment because the opposition in power would still need them, and probably fear them too. With growing violence and chaos, moreover, calls for some authoritarian solution are likely to be heard, and support for it to be broad.
The next six years will be troubled in Venezuela, and the 2019 elections even more. The regime’s bet on a clean electoral process now looks a lot like the hubris that led Chile’s Pinochet to dream of a victory in his 1989 plebiscite. Don’t expect anybody to make the same mistake again: if Chavez’ men are still in power in 2019, they won’t let a disaster like this year happen again.