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Although pre-election polls pointed to the potential for a tight race, President Hugo Chávez defeated challenger Henrique Capriles by a comfortable margin at the presidential election held on October 7, winning a fresh six-year mandate by securing 55% of the more than 14 million votes cast nationwide. Capriles campaigned on a platform that amounted to an explicit rejection of Chávez’s program of “socialism for the 21st century,” and the margin of victory, although far smaller than the president’s 26-point advantage in 2007, is large enough that Chávez can credibly claim to have a mandate to press on with his Bolivarian revolution.
Chávez has announced that Nicolas Maduro, his foreign minister and a close confidant, will serve as vice president. Given the president’s well-publicized health issues, which have cast doubt on his ability to serve for a full term, the appointment has serious implications that go far beyond the powers of the vice president’s post.
Maduro is a former bus driver who first became involved in politics as an activist within the unofficial union of public transportation workers beginning in the 1970s. He played a key role in securing the release of Chávez, who was imprisoned for his role in a failed attempt to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992, and was a founder of the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), the predecessor to the current governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
Although he remains a loyal supporter of the president, Maduro is viewed within domestic business circles as among the more moderate figures in the leftist government. Some analysts have suggested that the foreign minister is one of the few government officials who is capable of communicating effectively with Venezuela’s private sector.
Under the constitution, a presidential vacancy occurring in the first four years of a term is to be filled by means of election. If a vacancy occurs in the final two years of the term, the vice president is to serve out the remainder of the term. Chávez claims that he is feeling fine, but questions as to the severity of his health issues remain. His opponents are watching closely for signs of a move to alter the constitution so as to permit Maduro to finish the current term regardless of when Chávez departs the scene, which would indicate that the president is not as confident about his longevity as he is letting on.
Although Capriles was defeated, there were some bright spots for the Democratic Unity Table, the opposition coalition that backed his candidacy. For one thing, the very fact that the opposition front remained united is a minor victory, given the skill with which Chávez has in the past exploited divisions among his opponents. In addition, Capriles ran a disciplined, efficient campaign that won more than 6.5 million votes, the most by any of Chávez’s challengers in four elections since 1999.
That said, the post-election disappointment among members of the opposition is more likely to result in divisive recriminations than continued unity. The first test will come with the election of the country’s governors in December. Currently, the opposition controls eight governor’s posts, but the presence of multiple opposition candidates in some gubernatorial races creates a danger of splitting the anti-Chávez vote, to the benefit of pro-government candidates.