Greg Wilpert: Election far closer than expected as Maduro ran a weak campaign; electronic voting process verified by paper ballots, audit unlikely to find discrepancy
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
On Sunday night, the Venezuelan presidential elections were a cliffhanger. Nicolas Maduro, the chosen successor by Hugo Chavez, won by the narrowest of margins, around 300,000 votes. He got 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent by his opponent, Henrique Capriles. The election was far closer than anyone expected. Ten days ago, polls were showing Maduro as much as ten points ahead, and earlier as much as 20 points ahead.
Henrique Capriles has said he will not accept the results without a recount.
HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There have been 3,200 (irregular) incidents on the electoral process. In a very firm way, I want to tell something to the government candidate: you are the one who has been defeated today. We have the right to demand a recount of this electoral process, a very detailed review in front of our country and the world.
JAY: Nicolas Maduro gave his victory speech, and here’s a few segments from what he said.
NICOLAS MADURO, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT ELECT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): In other countries, like in the United States, a president whose name I won’t mention won with a margin of 0.3 percent and ruled for eight years after that. And what did the opposition candidates say about that? Not a word. In Mexico, a president won with 0.3 percent and governed a full six-year term. What did the left say when they lost the election? That the election results must be respected. There are many cases like that.
Here we won with almost 2 percent–that’s 300,000 votes–in the middle of an electoral “war”. For the first time “the giant” (Chavez) is not a candidate.
Of course this is the beginning of a new phase for the Bolivarian revolution. It has to be a time of efficiency and absolute honesty. This has to be a time of popular power. Popular power has to be the formula to correct our mistakes. I call for a profound and deep change of corrections in all of our life’s aspects.
JAY: Now joining us to discuss the election results from New York is Greg Wilpert. Greg is a sociologist who between the years 2000 and 2008 lived in Venezuela, where he taught at the Central University of Venezuela. He’s also founded Venezuela.com. In 2007 he published the book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. And he moved back to the U.S. in 2008 when his wife was named consul general of Venezuela in New York.
Thanks very much for joining us, Greg.
GREGORY WILPERT, ADJ. PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, BROOKLYN COLLEGE: Thanks for having me.
JAY: So this election was way closer than anyone expected. Let’s get into, first of all, the mechanics of what might happen next. So what is involved in the recount that Capriles has asked for? And is that an automatic? Does he get the recount because he asked for it?
WILPERT: I don’t think it’s automatic, but I think it’s fairly likely, because it doesn’t involve that much of extra work, actually. Normally in Venezuela when ballots are cast, they cast both an electronic ballot and a paper ballot, and about 53 percent of the paper ballots are randomly–or ballot boxes are randomly selected for a manual count that is then compared with the electronic vote count. And in this case, Capriles is basically asking that instead of only 53 percent of the ballot boxes be opened and manually counted, he wants 100 percent of the ballot boxes to be opened and counted. So it’s approximately twice as much work as it otherwise would be, and my guess is it would take probably another day or two to count those boxes, assuming that all the poll workers stay on their jobs to do that. And so given the closeness of the vote, I suspect that the CNE, that is, the National Electoral Council, will probably agree to do that.
JAY: And just so everyone gets what we’re talking about here, the reason they do 53 percent originally is that it’s supposed to be a sort of random checking that the machines are counting in accordance with the paper ballot. And now that it’s this close, he wants 100 percent of the paper ballots looked at, physically looked at. So assuming the paper ballots bear out the electronic vote, Maduro is now beginning a six-year term as president. Is that right?
WILPERT: Yes, exactly.
JAY: But given the closeness of the vote, there is the possibility of a recall, is there not, under the constitution. Is it after three years? Am I remembering correctly? There could be a recall vote mounted?
WILPERT: Yes, after three years the opposition could collect signatures. They have to collect 20 percent–signatures from 20 percent of the electorate for a recall referendum. And they would have to get more votes than Maduro actually got when he got elected, which will be actually tricky given how high the turnout was this time, with 78 percent, which is a very high–it wasn’t quite as high as when Chavez ran for reelection last October when it was 81 percent turnout, but it still is a historically high result. So it will be rather difficult, actually, to mount a recall [incompr.]
JAY: Now, just in terms of the process, if in fact it turns out the recount or the–I shouldn’t–I guess it’s not really a recount–the extra count of all the ballots, if in fact it does show it was either closer or it calls into question the electronic voting, then what?
WILPERT: Well, certainly the electoral council acts as a kind of a judge in this case, and they could in theory reverse the decision. I find it highly unlikely that such a thing would happen, because the Venezuelan electoral process is extremely accurate and audited every step of the way. It’s–the odds that there will be a discrepancy between the paper ballots and the electronic ballots is practically zero, in my opinion.
JAY: Okay. Well, let’s then assume that’s the case. If it isn’t, obviously we’re going to be talking about this again. So then what accounts for how close the elections were? As I said in the introduction, only ten days ago, Maduro was ten points ahead. Momentum seemed to have been with Capriles. So what do you think that’s about?
WILPERT: I think basically Maduro ran a pretty bad campaign, actually, for a number of reasons. For one thing, he didn’t present himself as being his own person. He ran basically on the entire Chavez legacy, which is fine, of course, given that Chavez was so popular and such a charismatic individual. It was in a way certainly perhaps the best thing he could have done. But on the other hand, I think many people felt like, well, we don’t really even know who this guy Maduro is, other than his promise to basically follow faithfully in Chavez’s footsteps. That was one issue.
The other issue was, I think, that the campaign was to a large extent waged on the terms of the opposition. That is, the opposition set the main themes of the campaign. And, of course, when the opposition manages to do that, then the governing party is at a distinct disadvantage, because the themes are going to be ones that don’t look so good on the government’s record. And in this case it was economic issues, it was the issue of crime, and it was the issue of inefficiency in the public administration, all three issues where there’s problems on the government’s record. And so the government or Maduro was basically on the defensive the whole time during the campaign, and that I think contributed to a large extent to why he didn’t do as well as he might have otherwise done.
JAY: So this is part of him positioning himself all within the legacy of Chavez instead of a vision for what a future would look like under the leadership of Maduro.
WILPERT: Well, of course, Chavez’s legacy also involved a vision for the future. So it wasn’t completely devoid of a vision. It’s just that it wasn’t his own vision. And so his own profile really didn’t come out so strongly, other than, of course, his attempt to identify with the working class, which is of course something also that was important, considering that he used to be a union organizer and a bus driver.
JAY: And that’s rather important, because Hugo Chavez’s strength was mostly in the barrios. But the sort of more urbanized, you could say, more sophisticated working class was somewhat split about Chavez.
WILPERT: Well, I think it wasn’t necessarily so much that they were split, but also, as I said, partly the issues that resonate negatively with people. And, also, Maduro made a couple of blunders, I think, during his campaign. He talked about how he saw Chavez in the form of a bird, for example, which people in the opposition camp managed to make a lot of fun of. And there were a couple of other things where he accidentally–he made, basically, gaffes, where he accidentally referred to an island in Venezuela as being a state when it really wasn’t a state, that kind of a thing which he certainly knows better, but it was just a mistake. And so he looked bad on a couple of occasions.
JAY: So the momentum seemed to have been with Capriles. Apparently he got 1 million more votes in this election than he did just a few months ago when he ran against Chavez.
WILPERT: Yes. And, I mean, I think one of the reasons that people expected Maduro to do better was because of the sympathy vote, given Chavez’s recent death. But I think that aspect was probably overemphasized or overestimated.
JAY: So, assuming Maduro is going to be the president, he’s facing enormous challenges, not the least of which almost half the country voted against him. How does he deal with that? I mean, is there things that he has to do differently than Chavez was doing?
WILPERT: Well, that was one of the main points, actually, in Capriles’s, well, semi-concession speech, which was precisely that, that the government’s former strategy of belittling the opposition as being insignificant doesn’t work anymore, that the people who voted for Capriles are almost as many as voted for Maduro, and therefore he has to take them into account. I think that is a pretty strong, powerful argument.
But also, going beyond that, I think what it really means, given that I think Capriles actually ran a fairly deceptive campaign trying to imitate Chavez to some extent, I think the bigger issue, really, is that Maduro is going to have to address the main campaign issues properly, which are the ones of crime and economic management and of state inefficiency.
JAY: This issue of state inefficiency is kind of wrapped up in the other two, the issue of crime and the economy, because a lot of the issues–and we’ve discussed this in previous interviews–sort of the inability, often, of the state to execute on policies, that the policies actually look quite good, and then the execution, it seems to fall apart. And Capriles really zeroed in on that. And then in Maduro’s speech, apparently he said one of the main objectives facing him is to make the state more efficient. What does that mean? I mean, how’s he going to do that?
WILPERT: Well, that’s a very good question, and I’m not sure if he really has an answer for that. One of the things it’s going to have to mean, I think, is some kind of better–you know, paying better attention to performance of state officials and trying to crack down more on corruption. This is exactly what Maduro has promised. But, of course, it’s always a big question as to whether or not they’ll be able to do that.
JAY: ‘Cause there’s always been this issue in Venezuela–and for good reason. I mean, we shouldn’t forget there was a coup in 2002. But there’s always sort of a push-pull between loyalty of people, especially at senior levels, but even below, and their ability to execute. And you’re sort of–you know, if you’re in a position where you just had a coup and you have so many forces against you, you tend to go for loyalty, and the issue of capability and efficiency maybe come second. And that’s not–those pressures aren’t going to be less now, given the results of the election. On the other hand, there are some people at senior levels that don’t seem to be able to execute, and, you know, you’d think he’s going to have to move them out.
WILPERT: Yes. Exactly. I mean, this is a constant problem, actually. It was especially, I think, a problem for Chavez because he placed such a high premium on loyalty. And, of course, what you’re saying is absolutely correct, that the coup was one of the reasons. But I think it went deeper than that. I mean, Chavez instinctively also, beyond the coup attempt, placed a very high importance on the issue of loyalty over competence often, although he always seemed to be very aware of the need to balance these two factors out.
What I don’t know is to what extent Maduro will be able to transcend this dilemma, really. So far his track record, I think, has been fairly good, actually, in terms of appointing good people to important positions. But, of course, he’s going to be paying attention to these kinds of issues as well and to the loyalty issue as well.
For me, the even bigger question is to what extent is Maduro going to be able to manage the economy, given that I think he isn’t as much–I mean, economic issues haven’t been in the past his specialty, really, and so that’s, to me, the even bigger problem that he’s facing.
JAY: Now, you say Capriles ran a deceptive campaign. Why do you say that?
WILPERT: Well, Capriles was basically promising to continue all of the social policies of the Chavez government and was constantly–I mean, he was imitating Chavez down the line. I mean, in the end he seemed to be praising Chavez, saying essentially that Maduro is no Chavez and isn’t as good a leader as Chavez, and things like that. But not only that, he was promising to continue social programs, but then at the same time also promising to introduce changes in the economic management, to attract more foreign investment, for example, which in a way could undermine these social programs, because when you try to attract foreign direct investment, you have to open up the economy to a much larger degree, which tends to lower state revenues. So then how are you going to fund the social programs? So this never was really clear to me how he was going to balance these two things.
JAY: Okay. So in the next day or two we’re going to essentially know the recount or the full count. How long do you think that takes?
WILPERT: My guess is if they get started right away–and they probably would have to, given the urgency of the issue and the fact that, you know, they’d probably have to keep the same people who worked on the polling stations, they probably would have to do it within the next two or three days is my guess, although there’s no precedent for it, so I could be wrong.
JAY: And I guess, as pure speculation here, but if the vote does get confirmed, do you expect Capriles to accept it?
WILPERT: I think he won’t have any other choice, because there’s plenty of international election observers. They’ve got their own witnesses. That’s the thing. The voting process is so triple-audited–you know, you have the electronic count, you’ve got the paper count, and then you have the counts by the different election observers and the witnesses that–and it’s very unlikely that those three counts will–there will be a mismatch between them. And if there is, there’s always a way to figure out which one is probably the correct–.
JAY: That is part of what Capriles said, isn’t it, that their witnesses have come up with a different count.
WILPERT: Yes, that was one of the arguments that he made. And it would be a relatively simple matter to track down what is the discrepancy and where it comes from. And so I think it will be resolved. I honestly don’t believe that the Chavista camp would be interested in outright fraud, because they know the electoral system as well as anybody else, and therefore know that fraud is practically impossible in this system.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us. And we’ll be doing this again in a few days when we do know the final result. Thanks, Greg.
WILPERT: My pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
Don’t forget we’re in our spring fundraising campaign. We have a matching grant. If you donate $1, we’ll get another $1. So if you donate many dollars, then we’ll get many more dollars.
Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.