Venezuela’s Capriles Faces Tough Battle to Challenge Election

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) -

ANALYSIS

Henrique Capriles may have cemented his status as Venezuela’s undisputed opposition leader, but he faces an uphill battle in his challenge to election results that narrowly handed the OPEC nation’s presidency to Nicolas Maduro.

The youthful state governor won a surprising 49 percent of ballots in the snap election called to succeed late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who comfortably beat Capriles in October before succumbing to cancer.

Capriles refused to recognize Maduro’s narrow victory and called supporters into the streets for peaceful protests to back his demand for a full manual recount.

But some of those demonstrations turned violent and at least eight people were killed. The government immediately accused Capriles of trying to trigger a coup.

The violence overshadowed Capriles’ biggest achievement to date — pulling over half a million Chavez supporters into the opposition in a short campaign despite Maduro’s ample use of state resources — and forced him to scrap the tactic of street demonstrations.

Furthermore, he has so far publicly presented little in the way of smoking-gun evidence to show the vote was stolen, though his campaign alleges more than 3,000 irregularities, from armed thugs in polling stations to mismatches on tally sheets.

“Unless it can be demonstrated soon that Maduro committed massive fraud … it will be difficult for the opposition to make the case that the current government stole the election,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Capriles has rejuvenated the image of an opposition that was dominated for years by discredited old-guard politicians.

He also helped redirect the opposition’s ineffective ideological attacks on Chavez into sharper criticism about bread-and-butter issues such as crime, inflation and blackouts.

Capriles, governor of Miranda state, had promised during the campaign to keep the best of Chavez’s social welfare programs while scrapping socialist economic policies for a Brazil-style system that respects free enterprise while helping the poor.

Sunday’s vote put him firmly at the helm of the disparate opposition coalition, in contrast to Maduro’s weak mandate and limited control over his own similarly unruly coalition of socialists that for years was held together largely by Chavez’s magnetic charisma.

Capriles denies any link to this week’s violence and has called on supporters to use peaceful protests, while insisting on a recount.

Capriles’ refusal to recognize Maduro as president seems increasingly futile as electoral authorities prepare to swear in the 50-year-old former bus driver and Chavez protégé on Friday in the presence of heads of state from around Latin America.

“The electoral system worked absolutely perfectly,” said National Electoral Council (CNE) head Tibisay Lucena, whom the opposition accuse of being in the ruling party’s pocket.