Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s designated successor, wins the presidential election by a thin margin. By JOHN CHERIAN

Opinion polls published a few days before the April 14 presidential election in Venezuela had predicted a comfortable victory for Nicolas Maduro, the designated successor of Hugo Chavez. But the final results came in as a bit of a surprise. Maduro could only win with little more than 1.8 percentage points over his right-wing opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski. The result has come as a wake-up call for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Under the leadership of President Chavez, the party had virtually swept the elections for State Governors in December last. In the presidential election held in October 2012, Chavez had defeated Capriles by more than a million votes. A significant bulk of those votes have shifted to Capriles within a span of just six months even though he is a candidate supported by the oligarchs. It should not be forgotten, however, that Chavez also tasted defeat by a narrow margin when he lost a referendum in 2007 to bring changes to the presidential term limit in the Constitution.

Opinion polls taken a few weeks before the hurriedly arranged presidential election had indicated that the sympathy factor following the death of Chavez would not translate into votes. This time, unlike in last October, the opposition was fully united behind one candidate. But the opposition had no realistic hopes of winning, as was evident when it began alleging that the election was anyway going to be rigged. Capriles went to the extent of saying that Maduro would not be able to complete his term as President as he lacked the stature to hold such a high office. Even before the voting booths opened, the opposition was talking about a “recall” election to destabilise the Bolivarian revolution. The Venezuelan Constitution has a clause which allows a referendum to be held for the recall of the President.

The opposition, in the normal course of things, should have been happy with its performance, but it chose to up the ante by alleging fraud and taking violently to the streets. Eighteen primary health centres and three fair-price shops were targeted, resulting in the death of seven people. Dispensaries manned by Cuban doctors working in poor rural neighbourhoods were attacked. Maduro described the opposition’s resort to violence as an attempt to take “Venezuela off the road of democracy”. The international community knows that the Venezuelan electoral system is among the fairest in the world. Former United States President Jimmy Carter has described it as the most transparent in the world. “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world,” Carter remarked in September 2012.

Capriles wasted no time in denouncing the Maduro victory as “illegitimate”. Among the few international takers for the claim, not surprisingly, was the Obama administration. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a recount and was not ready to recognise Maduro as the winner. The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, said that the U.S. was planning to stage another coup in Venezuela by questioning the legality of the election. “I am certain that behind those remarks, the U.S. is preparing a coup d’état in Venezuela,” the Bolivian President said.

The Venezuelan Electoral Commission urged the losing candidate to use “legal methods” to pursue his complaints. The commission was quick to audit 54 per cent of the votes immediately after the complaints from the opposition, in front of observers from both sides. No mistakes were found, but the opposition kept insisting on an immediate manual recount of all the votes cast. In Venezuela, like in India, votes are electronically counted and the electoral system is completely computerised. There are two records of every ballot—the paper vote and the electronic vote. The Election Commission announced on April 16 that it would carry out a full audit of the votes. The opposition is fully aware that the audit of the remaining 46 per cent of the votes is not going to change the results.

Maduro said that he welcomed a “full recount”. “If they want an audit, then do an audit. We have complete trust in our electoral body,” he said. All the charges of electoral skulduggery made by Capriles have proved unsubstantiated. All the regional organisations, including the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the regional blocs Mercosur and Unasur, were quick to recognise the victory of Maduro. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) also issued a statement supporting the Venezuelan government and calling for stability and cessation of violence. One hundred and fifty international observers were invited by Venezuela’s Election Commission to cover the election.

Since the abortive military coup against Chavez in 2002, the U.S. State Department has been working overtime to destabilise the Venezuelan government. An investigative article published by the Brazilian Agency for Investigative Reporting and Journalism, Publica, has detailed the strategy of the Bush administration to bring about a regime change in Venezuela. The former U.S. Ambassador to Caracas from 2004 to 2006, William Brownfield, had formulated a five-point plan to destabilise the government. The plan included funnelling huge funds to the opposition allegedly to strengthen democracy, subverting the mass base of the ruling party, and isolating Chavez internationally. Brownfield is currently the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. According to the Publica report, the U.S. spent $15 million for the technical assistance and training of over 300 civil society groups in Venezuela. The money was channelled through the U.S. Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), which was specifically set up after the failed 2002 coup.

U.S. agenda A U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks described the activities of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)/Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) as mainly aimed at “undermining the credibility of the Venezuelan government”. A cable by Brownfield said that the strengthening of democratic institutions opposed to the Venezuelan government “represents the majority of USAID/OTI work in Venezuela”. The OTI funded over 50 social projects with the aim of “fostering confusion within the Bolivarian ranks”. The WikiLeaks cable went on to say that the OTI had reached “238,000 Venezuelans through over 3,000 forums, workshops and training sessions delivering alternative values and providing opportunities for opposition activists to interact with hard-core Chavistas, with the desired effect of pulling them slowly away from Chavismo”. The Venezuelan government forced Washington to close the offices of the OTI in 2010.

The opposition, however, seems to have imbibed the political coaching given by Washington. Capriles contested on a populist plank, promising to continue virtually all of Chavez’s welfare programmes. According to reports in the Venezuelan media, he even adopted Chavez’s distinctive style of speaking, peppering his speeches with anecdotes. He repeatedly compared himself to another Socialist, former Brazilian President Lula da Silva. On the campaign trail, he said that if elected, he would raise the salaries of workers by 46.5 per cent. Maduro had to play catch-up and promise a similar hike. Capriles, by virtue of having run for Governor and President before, had become a seasoned campaigner. This time around, he shifted his focus from Chavez and trained his gun solely on Maduro, claiming that he was not competent to lead the country.

The privately owned media which overwhelmingly supports the opposition kept harping on Maduro’s working-class background and his beginnings as a bus driver. Maduro is, however, proud of his working-class roots. He drove a bus to register his candidacy for the presidency. But he did not help his cause by pushing ideological issues to the background and talking about the importance of spirituality and “the conversation with a bird” carrying a message from Commandante Chavez. The opposition also used a photograph of Maduro with the late Indian “god man” Sathya Sai Baba to paint a picture of him as a non-Christian in a predominantly Catholic country.

In the run-up to the April elections, the country experienced another spurt in inflation following the devaluation of the currency. Owing mainly to the ambitious welfare programmes the government had undertaken, which included free health care and education, along with subsidised food for the poor, the central bank was facing a liquidity crunch. The government had to curtail some of its food imports earlier in the year, leading to a shortage of some essential commodities. All these factors made the government, which was now under the effective charge of Maduro, susceptible to the propaganda unleashed by the opposition. After the results were announced, the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who belongs to the ruling party and was a close associate of Chavez, said that the results “oblige us to make a profound self-criticism”. He said that it was “contradictory for the poor sectors of the population to vote for their long-time exploiters”. But the overwhelming majority of the Chavistas did not abandon ship. They no doubt remembered that Capriles was among the enthusiastic supporters of the abortive 2002 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored coup against Chavez.

President Maduro, in a televised address following the elections, said that U.S. intervention in the country’s politics, particularly during the months before the presidential election, had been “brutal and vulgar—and in direct coordination with the oligarchs”. Though Maduro did not spell out the actions undertaken by the Americans, the government has been accusing USAID, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute for strategising and financing the opposition’s election campaign. Capriles, according to the investigative reporter Eva Gollinger, was an early beneficiary of funds from the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute in 2001 when he formed his Justice First Party.

President Maduro has emphasised that the “peaceful revolution” started by Chavez will be further consolidated. “The media myth that our political project will fall apart without Chavez was a fundamental misreading of Venezuela’s revolution,” wrote Maduro in an opinion piece which appeared in The Guardian newspaper. In a speech he delivered after being formally sworn in as President, Maduro pledged to “construct an independent, free and socialist Venezuela for all”. At the same time, he warned the opposition against promoting “xenophobia” in Venezuela. He was alluding to the targeting of Cuban-staffed health clinics in the country by opposition supporters after the election results were announced. Maduro also said that the opposition was determined to reject the conclusions of the Election Commission and that “they have another plan”. He emphasised that the “nation is strong, it is awoken” and was ready to face more attempts at violence and sabotage. He also announced that the government aimed to achieve “zero poverty” in Venezuela by 2019.