Caracas, Venezuela – Nicolas Maduro has cemented his position as Venezuela’s president, winning a razor-thin mandate on Sunday, but the former bus driver seems unwilling to step out from the shadow of his larger-than-life predecessor to govern a country wracked by problems and possibilities.
Describing himself as a “son” of former president Hugo Chavez who died from cancer last month, Maduro is tasked with governing a politically divided country which has the world’s largest oil reserves.
The Cuban-educated former foreign minister beat opposition challenger Henrique Capriles by less than 300,000 votes, or a margin of about 1.5 percent. Capriles refused to recognise the results, alleging the vote was marred by more than 3,000 irregularities. He called for a recount.
But Maduro beat him to the demand, using part of his acceptance speech to formally ask the National Electoral Council (CNE) for an audit of the vote “so there won’t be any doubt in the result”.
Venezuela’s Capriles refuses to accept Maduro win
Despite campaigning against political polarisation and social division, Capriles did little to appeal to national unity on Sunday. The governor of Miranda State, Capriles attacked the same election authorities responsible for certifying the vote that brought him to office. Then he launched into a tirade against Maduro.
“I want to say to the government’s candidate, the loser today is you,” Capriles said in a fiery speech. “You are the loser.”
Unless something miraculous happens with the recount, Capriles will have lost the last two presidential elections, and his national political career could be in jeopardy.
The row over the vote count is emblematic of the schism in Venezuela between two opposing political projects – socialism and capitalism.
In this age-old debate, Maduro made his stance crystal-clear. “Christian-Bolivarian-Socialism is the answer to overcoming the anti-values of capitalism,” he said, pledging to entirely eliminate poverty in Venezuela by the time his term ends in 2019.
Some voters liked the pledge. “For me, the biggest issue is that the revolution goes on,” Marlina Flores, a government supporter, told Al Jazeera. “The new government should continue the legacy of Chavez in all aspects.”
Appeals to socialist revolution resonate among some sectors of the governing party’s base, but other Venezuelans crave national unity. “The president should bring all the people together, regardless of ideology or gender,” Igor Ramirez, a security guard and government supporter, told Al Jazeera.
Despite his anti-capitalist rhetoric, it remains unclear if Maduro will enter into a détente with the country’s business elite in an attempt to expand his circle of influence, or if he will continue expropriating firms and imposing controls on enterprise.
Geraldo Perez, a businessman, believes the economy is the biggest issue facing the country. In its first 100 days, the new government “should bring in foreign investors and guarantee the safety of their investments”, he told Al Jazeera.
That’s easier said than done given current circumstances. Inflation is running above 20 percent in South America’s fourth-largest economy. Venezuela’s currency was devalued by a third in February, the fifth such loss in 10 years, and another round of monetary adjustment seems inevitable.
Officially, the exchange rate is 6.3 bolivars to the US dollar but black market entrepreneurs happily trade at a rate four times higher.
“We can’t stand another devaluation,” Cruz de Blondell, a retired teacher living in a lower-class area, told Al Jazeera. “If the devaluation is done and our salaries go up, then fine. But these devaluations always seem to benefit a small group.”
“The politicians always say they are being inclusive, but it’s not true,” Blondell said.
Sharp splits in the electorate are nothing new for Venezuela. Mauduro, however, could face divisions within his own party, and he enters Miraflores Palace with a weaker mandate from voters than his populist predecessor.
Diosdado Cabello, President of the National Assembly and a shrewd political operator, tweeted that election results “oblige us to make a profound self-criticism. It’s contradictory that the poor sectors of the population vote for their longtime exploiters”.
Unlike Chavez, who was untouchable within the Socialist Party, Maduro will have to contend with internal jostling within his own ranks, along with the country’s domestic opposition and foreign detractors.
“Within one or two years, the contradictions Maduro faces will come to the fore,” Rafael Orihuela, a political analyst, said.
Relations with the US, the largest customer for Venezuela’s oil and the country’s traditional trading partner, have been frosty in recent years. The countries have not exchanged ambassadors and observers will be watching Maduro’s diplomacy carefully.
When casting his vote in January 23, in a poor neighbourhood perched on a hillside of Caracas, Maduro offered an olive branch to his opponents in Washington, saying he was prepared to reestablish relations with the US if they were based on “equality and respect”.
Part of Chavez's legacy was raising awareness about the wealth we have under our soil and how it must be evenly distributed.
He reportedly reached out to former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on Saturday, asking the Washington insider to carry a message to other US officials.
With oil production dropping, some sectors of the Socialist Party reportedly want technological expertise and capital from US companies to help exploit heavy oil in the Orinoco Belt, some of the world’s richest untapped deposits.
Some western oil majors including Chevron still operate in Venezuela, but others like Exxon do not. Considering recent history, with the US supporting a coup against Venezuela’s elected government in 2002, many rank-and-file socialists are jittery about restoring ties.
“Part of Chavez’s legacy was raising awareness about the wealth we have under our soil and how it must be evenly distributed,” Samuel Vargas, a construction worker, told Al Jazeera. “Chavez taught us about our own history and national symbols. Before him, Venezuelans wanted to be cheap copies of Europe or the US.”
This heady mix of culture and economics is part of “El Comandate’s” historical legacy, upon which Maduro has capitalised.
Luis Gonzalez, a telecommunications technician, compared Maduro to an uncle, while the young man viewed Chavez as a father. “We are voting for Maduro because that’s what Chavez wanted,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera after casting his ballot in the tough January 23 neighbourhood. “We aren’t really supporting a man, but an idea.”
If Maduro can continue the ideas that led voters to connect with his predecessor, while addressing the country’s security and economic problems, he could inspire hope in his own right. But for now, at least, Chavismo has outlived Chavez.