A special election was held in mid-April to fill the presidential vacancy created by the death of Hugo Chávez in early March. Chávez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, was heavily favored to defeat the joint opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles. However, Maduro won by less than two percentage points, compared to Chávez’s nearly 11-point margin of victory over Capriles in October 2012, and the opposition candidate has challenged the results.

Maduro was sworn in as president in his own right on April 16. But the risk moving forward is that Capriles’ supporters, who are refusing to accept the legitimacy of Maduro’s victory, will conduct a prolonged campaign of disruptive protests that will only serve to deepen divisions in a highly polarized country. Although the threat of street-level unrest has diminished, at least temporarily, a physical brawl that erupted in the National Assembly between members of the governing PSUV and the opposition MUD in late April is but one sign of simmering political tensions that neither side seems to be particularly keen to contain.

Capriles has pointedly accused the PSUV of stealing the election. At the same time, the PSUV majority in the National Assembly has established a commission to determine if Capriles is legally culpable for the deaths that occurred as a result of violent unrest that erupted in the immediate aftermath of the election. It is likely that the government will delay taking action as long as Capriles refrains from pressing his claim on the presidency.

Maduro faces a very real risk of future challenges to his authority.

In any case, the government’s uncooperative response to the MUD candidate’s claims of electoral irregularities has likely confirmed doubts about the legitimacy of Maduro’s mandate among Capriles’ supporters, who make up about 43 percent of the electorate. As a result, Maduro faces a very real risk of future challenges to his authority in the probable event that he encounters setbacks in his effort to deal with a daunting array of challenges. This includes shortages of food, electricity, and housing, sky-high inflation that is forecast to top 30 percent following a controversial devaluation of the currency earlier in the year, the stalling of economic growth, and a spreading sense of insecurity fueled by a murder rate befitting a war zone.

During this time, the mostly poorer Venezuelans who formed the hard core of Chávez’s popular base, and who deserve much of the credit for saving Maduro from defeat in April, will expect to be rewarded for their loyalty. The president will face heavy pressure to maintain the populist policy course established by his predecessor.

If he does so, the result will likely be a worsening of the problems that are already apparent. However, failure to maintain generous spending on social programs could leave Maduro vulnerable to a two-front assault, with the MUD and its supporters applying pressure from one side, and disappointed Chávez loyalists pushing hard from the other.

With that possibility in mind, Maduro would do well to foster a good relationship with the armed forces, the top levels of which are staffed with strong supporters of Chávez’s so-called “Bolivarian revolution.” The president could face competition for the loyalty of the military brass from the likes of National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer who played a key role in Chávez’s return to the presidency following a brief coup in April 2002. Cabello’s support for Maduro cannot be taken for granted, particularly if the president were to respond to an economic and/or political crisis by embracing policies that the Chávez loyalists see as a betrayal of the revolution.

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The PRS Group
About The Author The PRS Group
The PRS Group is a leading global provider of political and country risk analysis and forecasts, covering 140 countries. Based on proprietary, quantitative risk models, the firm's clientele includes financial institutions, multilateral agencies, and trans-national firms.




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