The verdict of this month’s Venezuelan elections, with a narrow margin of 250,000 votes for the winner, has shown with blinding clarity the limitations of the Bolivarian socialist movement without Hugo Chávez. And for Nicolás Maduro, so hurriedly proclaimed the winner, it will be a serious mistake if he allows his mandate to rest on the shaky foundation of a victory flawed by accusations of flagrant electoral fraud. The recent explanations offered by the president of the electoral commission in connection with the recount demanded by anti-Chavism opposition candidate Henrique Capriles — “the audit will not be a recount of the votes, nor is it aimed at changing the results” — cast grave doubts on the scope of the review, and on the real intentions of a crucial official body that, like the rest of Venezuelan public institutions, has lost its independence during 14 years of autocracy.
Maduro, with less than a two-percent advantage over the centrist Capriles, cannot honestly claim to have a mandate from the people to proceed further with the “irreversible socialist revolution” started by his political mentor. In terms of economic policy and political rules of the game, Venezuela urgently requires a change of course, which its new president cannot decline to undertake without risking a violent social reaction — however confidently he announces to his recently appointed Cabinet a “new cycle of the revolution.”
The Bolivarian project is unviable without its inventor. The mixture of charisma, intense populism, squandering and repression with which Hugo Chávez built his model — based on the sales of crude oil whose price was multiplied by six over the last decade — is not within the reach of his lusterless heir. With the country’s economy and infrastructure in ruins, inflation soaring, two currency devaluations in four months, and shortages of basic products in the supermarkets, the new Venezuelan government faces a many-headed monster against which rousing rhetoric is an unloaded weapon.
Instead of accentuating his authoritarian habits and acting out an uninspired parody of his late mentor, Maduro ought to concentrate on putting back together a land divided into two apparently irreconcilable halves, and on restoring the neutrality and credibility of public institutions. Nothing could be more desirable for the Venezuelan president and for his adherents than to begin their titanic task free of all suspicion of electoral fraud.