Few people expected Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles to defeat the handpicked successor to the late Hugo Chavez. The larger-than-life former president’s chosen heir, Nicolas Maduro, was, in fact, named the winner of Sunday’s election. But the election results still managed to stun. The two candidates received almost the same number of votes. The opposition is demanding a recount, and Maduro has emerged from the election surprisingly weakened, despite his victory. It is a risky turning point for the country, a challenge to Maduro’s untested skills and a perilous time for Chavismo.
Venezuela went to the polls within weeks of Chavez’s death, ensuring that Maduro would benefit from the powerful feelings of grief and loyalty among his supporters, who were expected to turn out in force to help bring about the outcome their late leader made so clear was his dying wish. Reports that the government has now ordered the arrest of the opposition candidate points to a nervous regime overplaying its hand and aggravate an already explosive situation.
Chavez used his final public statement to anoint his loyal aide in stark and emphatic terms. Coming from the man who had developed a personality cult and whose views were the decisive political factor for large numbers of Venezuelans, the unambiguous endorsement carried weight.