CARACAS, Venezuela — Calling himself the “Son of Chávez,” Nicolas Maduro, the interim president, hoped to garner an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s presidential election and complete the socialist transformation of this oil-rich nation that began under the man he served loyally for 20 years, President Hugo Chávez.
But as of 10 p.m. local time, tensions had risen here as both sides gave signs that they had won.
The campaign chiefs for both candidates – Maduro and his challenger, Henrique Capriles – strongly suggested in news conferences that their candidate had the lead. But electoral authorities had not issued returns, though Venezuela uses an automated vote-counting system that the government hails as tamper-proof.
The vote in this country of 29 million came less than six weeks after Chávez, 58, died at a Caracas military hospital after a long battle with cancer. His death plunged his fervent followers into mourning and gave Maduro, who had been the vice president, the potent sympathy vote in a country where millions had come to view Chávez as a father figure who never failed to bestow them with gifts.
Polls days before the vote showed Maduro, 50, a former union activist with close connections to the Castro brothers in Cuba, with a double-digit lead over Capriles, 40, a lawyer and governor. Capriles lost to Chávez in an October election, dispatched handily despite a long and hard-fought campaign, and his outlook for victory in the days after Chávez’s death appeared grim.
The government’s media apparatus – which includes half a dozen TV stations, newspapers and dozens of community radio outlets – deified Chávez as a saint and reminded people that he had proclaimed Maduro as his political heir. Chávez’s exhortation, in a Dec. 8 speech, that Maduro receive Venezuelans’ votes should he have to give up power was played repeatedly on television and at political rallies.
Capriles’s aides complained that Maduro’s campaign was backed by the power of the state – from the military, which made sure voters got to the polls, to the various ministries of Venezuela’s large government, which ensured that hundreds of thousands of state workers voted for the ruling-party candidate.
Maduro frequently warned that a vote for Capriles would be akin to treason – supporting a diabolical opposition of oligarchs and swindlers who would pillage the country with their masters from the United States, which the government here calls “the empire.”
“These are the people of Chávez. This is Chávez’s place. Chávez continues as an example for us!” Maduro shouted in his closing address atop a stage over Bolivar Avenue in the center of Caracas, the spot where Chávez gave dozens of rousing speeches. “I am ensuring the legacy of my commander, Chávez, the eternal father.”
Claudio Aguilera, 63, awoke Sunday as millions of other Chávez loyalists in the capital did, to the sound of pre-dawn bugles rousing them to make their way down from their small cinder-block homes scattered across hillsides to the voting stations.
“Yes, I voted at 6 a.m., going for Chavismo,” he said, talking about the socialist movement that bears its founder’s name. “Who else would we vote for? We’re not going to vote for the empire and see everything fall apart.”
Another Maduro supporter, Jean Leon, 30, spoke of how Chávez had transformed Venezuela for the better so that people like him in poor districts would have a voice.
He said it is up to Maduro to fulfill that legacy. “I want to see Nicolas in that chair of our commander,” he said. “May he take that mandate we’re giving him and work the legacy that our commander, Chávez, left behind.”
In middle-class neighborhoods of Caracas, though, voters spoke about a dysfunctional economy with the highest official inflation rate in the hemisphere, food shortages and constant power blackouts in provincial towns.
Many also spoke about the rampant crime that has made Caracas one of the world’s most dangerous cities and state interventions in businesses that have made Venezuela more reliant than ever on its oil exports.
Maria Blasini, 47, who said she was once mugged outside her house at lunchtime, said she thinks Venezuela has spiraled downward since Chávez was first elected in 1998.
“We’ve had 14 years of the same thing – instead of making advances, we’re falling behind,” she said. “I voted because we want change. I want security and that the economy is reactivated, that the kids have a future.”
Another pro-Capriles voter, lawyer Maria Sanchez, 40, said she wants a new government that will end the deep-seated, sometimes violent polarization that was one of Chávez’s legacies. She also said the country will need a dramatic restructuring, something akin to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. And, Sánchez said, all Venezuelans must participate. “It won’t be the work of just one person,” she said.
In the campaign, though, Maduro and the well-worn political machine that Chávez rode from one election victory to the next targeted the Chávez loyalists, from the hard-liners to those on the fence.
Maduro and other aides frequently accused the opposition of crimes, from planning his assassination to sabotaging electrical power stations to make the government look incompetent. He did not provide proof.
“Chávez was expert at polarizing in the campaign, because if the government can polarize, then it has the numbers to win,” said David Smilde, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America who has spent years in Venezuela researching Chávez’s revolution. But Chávez, he said, would soften up near the end of a campaign, when victory was assured.
“Maduro hasn’t done that second part,” said Smilde, co-editor of the book “Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy.” “He’s been polarizing right through the end.”
Although State Department officials said earlier this year that they had hoped Maduro would be open to improving tattered relations with the Obama administration, his campaign has frequently used the United States as a foil.
On Monday, for instance, Maduro blamed the United States after television cameras filmed a band of government supporters beating and throwing rocks at pro-Capriles youths. Just minutes after images began airing, Maduro called the attack “a strange act of violence where a small, very violent group is involved, financed by the United States government.”
© The Washington Post, 2013