Familiar fights await Maduro in post-Chavez Venezuela
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Nicolas Maduro, handpicked by Hugo Chavez as his political heir, won Venezuela's presidential election on Sunday. Lifted to the country's highest office by the late leader's enduring popularity, Maduro must now pick up where Chavez left off.
Nicolas Maduro, handpicked by the late Hugo Chavez as his political heir, won an extremely close presidential election on Sunday in Venezuela. But celebrations promised to be short, with rival Henrique Capriles rejecting the count and many familiar challenges waiting to be addressed in the post-Chavez era.
“The fight continues!” Maduro told a victory rally in Caracas, repeating his pledge to carry Chavez’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution forward. “This was the first time without the giant candidate, but he left behind his ‘son’, who is now going to be president and is going to show he is worthy of the fatherland.”
Chavez died of cancer on March 5, less than five months after decisively securing another term as president
With 50.66% support, Maduro, 50, barely edged out Capriles, who finished the night with 49.07% of the vote, in results that were much closer than those forecast by opinion polls before the election. The two candidates were separated by around 300,000 ballots.
“Mr. Maduro, if you were illegitimate before, now you are even more loaded with illegitimacy," Capriles, 40, said at a press conference, adding that his team had calculated different results and identified thousands of “incidents” during the voting.
Earlier, Venezuela’s National Electoral Commission had declared Maduro’s victory was “irreversible,” with 99% of the ballots counted. Capriles demanded a full recount.
Maduro, a one-time bus driver who became Chavez’s protégé, also inherited a clear six-year plan for the oil-rich South American nation, according to Jean Ortiz, a history professor at the University of Pau in southern France.
“The roadmap for the country was established well in advance,” Ortiz said in reference to a 2013 - 2019 government plan that Chavez unveiled in June 2012.
“This text is based on five main objectives: Guaranteeing the independence of the country, respecting its national sovereignty, maintaining its role as a regional power, helping create a multi-polar world and continue building Chavez’s twenty-first-century socialism,” the academic said.
A relatively high price of oil on the global market allowed Chavez to freely invest billions into education, health and housing programmes, especially among the poor. He also raised salaries, and even invested and shared revenues with like-minded governments in the region.
The result was a sharply declining level of poverty in Venezuela since Chavez rose to power. Poverty dropped from 49.9% in 1999 to 27.8% in 2010, and extreme poverty was reduced from 21.7% to 10.7% during the same period, according to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean (ECLAC).
Nevertheless, some analysts said Maduro would struggle to maintain the same, high level of spending that characterised Chavez’s 14-year tenure and which made the late “comandante” so popular.
Pascal Drouhaud, a Latin America specialist who works with the French-based industrial firm Alstom, said Maduro would need to implement reforms that do not figure in Chavez’s predefined strategy.
“His biggest challenge will be to impose an economy that is realistic in terms of its own budget,” Drouhaud said, pointing to a public deficit that is over 15% of GDP and to inflation that reached 20% last year.
Addressing scarcity, crime and corruption
Other challenges Maduro must face include a dependence on consumer imports, as well as rampant crime and corruption.
Ortiz said shortages of food staples and other basic products was a recurring problem in Venezuela that Maduro would need to address both in the short and long-term.
“The high oil revenues have structurally deformed the country,” he said. “Agriculture has a very weak role in the economy and Venezuela has to import most of the products its citizens consume.”
A high rate of violent crime was another troubling feather of Chavez’s legacy. Venezuela recorded 16,072 homicides in 2012, representing a rate of 56 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, according to official data.
That homicide rate was nearly eight times higher than the world average, and the highest in South America. During the presidential campaign Maduro said he intended to appeal directly to violent gangs, even while observers said the country’s weak judiciary was responsible for leaving many crimes unpunished.
Corruption also topped the list of voters’ concerns and is an issue Maduro has promised to tackle.
But Ortiz said the problem was so entrenched in Venezuela that it could only be addressed by restructuring the state. He added that handing over more power to local councils, which were regularly overshadowed by Chavez's larger-than-life personality, could help in the huge and urgent task.
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