Recount challenge in badly polarized Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s government-friendly electoral council indicated Monday it would quickly certify the presidential victory of Hugo Chavez’ hand-picked successor, apparently ignoring opposition demands for a recount in the tight race.

The move is bound to further heighten instability in an already deeply polarized nation where Nicolas Maduro was elected Sunday by a margin of 50.7 percent to 49.1 percent — a difference of just 235,000 votes out of 14.8 million cast.

“Until every vote is counted, Venezuela has an “illegitimate president and we denounce that to the world,” opposition candidate Henrique Capriles tweeted Monday.

His demand for a recount was being considered Monday by the National Electoral Council, and one of the council’s five members, independent Vicente Diaz, had also proposed a full recount.

But its president, Tibisay Lucena, said Sunday night in announcing the outcome that the result was “irreversible” and the electoral council’s press office said Maduro’s victory would be “proclaimed” later Monday. State television called on government supporters to join Maduro in a public square for the event.

Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, demanded Monday that the proclamation be suspended and called on his supporters to mass outside the electoral council on Tuesday.

He also claimed that members of the military — “an important group in various cities” — had been detained for trying to guarantee a free and fair election. He said they had been ordered to ignore abuses they witnessed. Capriles did not offer further details, such as how many were involved.

He says his campaign’s vote count resulted in “a different result” and has received more than 3,200 complaints of irregularities — all by pro-government forces. He demanded every single ballot be recounted.

The winner is to be formally inaugurated on Friday for a six-year-term.

Sworn in as acting president after Chavez’s March 5 death, Maduro squandered a double-digit advantage in opinion polls just two weeks earlier as Capriles accused the ruling Chavistas of running the oil-rich country into the ground.

By contrast, Chavez defeated Capriles by a nearly 11-point margin in October.

Maduro said during his victory speech Sunday night that he had no problem with a recount.

“Let 100 percent of the ballot boxes be opened,” he said. “We’re going to do it; we have no fear.”

Maduro did not, however, endorse a manual recount of individual ballots and his campaign manager, Jorge Rodrigez, repeated that position on Monday.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said a “100 percent audit” of the results would be “an important, prudent and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results.”

The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, also called for a “full recount.”

Under Venezuela’s voting system, 54 percent of the tallies printed out by individual voting machines are routinely audited and that was done Sunday night, said Dashiell Lopez, coordinator of the independent voting rights group SUMATE.

Individual ballots are not included in that audit.

No independent observer teams monitored the election as Chavez’s government in recent years has rejected then. Instead it invited witnesses to “accompany the process.”

The challenger’s camp has not yet explained how it intends to proceed with the recount demand.

Venezuelan election law does not specify how a recount might proceed or whether a candidate even has the right to demand one, said Lopez.

He said an attempt to carry out a recount in December in Bolivar state failed.

The logistics alone are daunting. A total of 39,319 boxes of paper ballot receipts were emitted by Venezuela’s electronic voting system Sunday. They are now stored in warehouses under the control of the military. Those receipts would need to be checked against vote count printouts emitted by each individual voting machine. Those results would then be checked with the electoral council’s central tally.

The electronic voting system itself was never questioned by the opposition and it has drawn praise from institutions including the Carter Center as among the most reliable.

Although the nation appeared calm Monday, the mood was tense after an often ugly, mudslinging campaign.

“We have a president today who is a political disaster who couldn’t even mobilize his people,” Julio Borges, an opposition leader, told Globovision, Venezuela’s last wholly independent TV station.

Analysts called the result a disaster for Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver who is believed to have close ties to Cuba.

He faces enormous economic challenges, as well as the task of holding together a movement built around the magnetism of the now-departed Chavez.

A hint of internal trouble to come came in a tweet by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who many consider Maduro’s main rival within their movement.

“The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism,” he said.

Few outside Venezuela had bigger stakes in the race than Cuban President Raul Castro, whose country receives generous subsidized oil exports from Venezuela in exchange for sending doctors, military advisories and other help to Venezuela.

Capriles had promised to end that exchange.

Castro issued a statement congratulating Maduro for “this transcendental triumph.”

But on Havana streets, Cubans were still worried.

“The difference in votes is very small, and I think that it will be very hard for Maduro to govern. For us in Cuba, well, I’m very pessimistic. I think it will be a debacle,” said Maite Romero, a 74-year-old retiree.

Maduro, a longtime foreign minister to Chavez, had counted on a wave of sympathy for the charismatic leader, and in victory, asked his spirit for help, holding up a crucifix pinned to a card showing Chavez.

The late president built up immense loyalty among millions of poor beneficiaries of government largesse and constructed a powerful state political apparatus.

Among the problems facing the new president are chronic power outages, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages, and rampant crime — one of the world’s highest homicide and kidnapping rates. The opposition said that only worsened after Chavez disappeared to Cuba in December for what would be his final surgery.

Maduro will face no end of hard choices, and political scientist Javier Corrales, of Amherst College, said he has shown no skills for tackling them.

Maduro has “a penchant for blaming everything on his ‘adversaries’ — capitalism, imperialism, the bourgeoisie, the oligarchs — so it is hard to figure how exactly he would address any policy challenge other than taking a tough line against his adversaries.”

Venezuela’s $30 billion fiscal deficit is equal to about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Many factories operate at half capacity because strict currency controls make it hard for them to pay for imported parts and materials. Business leaders say some companies verge on bankruptcy because they cannot extend lines of credit with foreign suppliers.

Chavez imposed currency controls a decade ago trying to stem capital flight as his government expropriated large land parcels and dozens of businesses.

Now, dollars sell on the black market at three times the official exchange rate and Maduro has had to devalue Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, twice this year.

Still, Maduro inherits a presidency made far more powerful under Chavez, who often succeeded in getting the National Assembly to let him rule by decree.

The ruling socialists dominate the assembly, and legislative elections will not take place for another two years.

The opposition’s main legal tool for ousting Maduro before his six-year term is a possible recall referendum, but that cannot take place until midway through his six-year-term.