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Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's President-Elect, Faces Massive Challenges

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NICOLAS MADURO WEAK MANDATE
Venezuela's interim President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters as he arrives to cast his ballot in the presidential election in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, April 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Enric Marti) | AP

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Nearly half Venezuela's voters don't want Nicolas Maduro in the presidential chair. He's inherited a dysfunctional economy, a deteriorating power grid and one of the world's highest homicide rates. And a glimmer of discontent already has surfaced in the movement of Hugo Chavez, who picked him to carry on the socialist revolution.

Maduro was certified the winner of a disputed presidential election Monday amid questions about his ability to lead after he squandered a double-digit lead in the race despite an outpouring of sympathy following Chavez's death.

Even before he deals with Venezuela's mounting problems, Maduro faces a challenge to his victory.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles demanded a recount of Sunday's election that he narrowly lost. As the National Electoral Council proclaimed Maduro the victor, people stood on their balconies in Caracas apartment buildings banging pots and pans in protest. Across town, thousands of students briefly clashed with National Guard troops who fired tear gas and plastic bullets.

The tensions persisted through the evening. Residents resumed their pot-banging as Maduro held a news conference, some pouring out into the streets.

In the city center, a divided district, government supporters tried to drown out the noise by setting off deafening firecrackers. Some drove trucks with megaphones, shouting pro-Chavista slogans through megaphones. Pedestrians shouted "Chavez lives! Maduro continues!"

Anti-Maduro protests also broke out in other regions, including Chavez's home state of Barinas.

Late Tuesday, Maduro announced he had met with a newly created "anti-coup" command at the military museum that holds Chavez's remains. He accused opposition protesters of attacking government clinics and the house of electoral council President Tibisay Lucena, without offering details. He said the government was investigating a possible death.

Maduro isn't without strengths. The presidency was made immensely stronger by the charismatic Chavez during his 14 years in power, and the ruling socialists will dominate the National Assembly for at least two more years.

Government leaders and military leaders closed ranks around Maduro on Monday in a series of television appearances to defend the official vote count and accuse Capriles of trying to foment violence.

Still, hours before the show of unity, a key Chavista leader showed a flash of discontent.

Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president who many consider Maduro's chief rival within the "Chavismo" movement, expressed dismay in two Twitter messages after the electoral council president announced the election results. In the first, he called for a "profound self-criticism" within Chavista ranks. In the second, he wrote: "We should look for our faults under the rocks if we have to."

Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said members of the ruling socialist party PSUV "realize that Maduro is not the man to guarantee continuity of the Chavista movement."

Cabello expressed disbelief about Capriles' strong showing, asking why "sectors of the poor population would vote for their exploiters of old."

That might not be such a mystery.

Among Venezuela's problems are crumbling infrastructure, persistent shortages of food and medicine, and double-digit inflation. The nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates Venezuela's homicide rate last year was 73 per 100,000 people, among the world's worst.

With such a narrow victory, Maduro has little political capital to make some of the difficult choices some of those problems require, said Risa Grais-Targow, Latin America analyst for the Eurasia Group.

Price controls and strict currency controls imposed under Chavez have failed to stem inflation or the flight of dollars and are strangling private firms. But lifting them abruptly could bring economic turmoil and hurt the poor.

Grais-Targow said Maduro will likely focus instead on expanding the myriad of social programs that cemented Chavez's popularity. But that has become increasingly difficult to balance with the need to spend on redressing Venezuela's other problems.

The state-oil company that gave billions of dollars to fund social programs is saddled with mounting debt and declining profits. Critics say the company has failed to invest in boosting oil production, which has fallen for years even though Venezuela has the world's biggest oil reserves.

Throughout the campaign, Maduro blamed Venezuela's frequent power blackouts on sabotage by government enemies and said food shortages are caused by hoarding by the private sector. So did Chavez before he died, but Sunday's election results showed that a growing numbers of Venezuelans are no longer buying it.

Maduro, a former bus driver who rose to become foreign minister and vice president under Chavez, offered no ideas of his own for resolving the country's problems. He did suggest at the news conference Monday night that a Cabinet shake-up was in the works.

The president-elect said he would have to "conform a new government," though he quickly added that he would ratify Vice President Jorge Arreaza, Chavez's son-in-law, in his post.

In his own Twitter message, Arreaza also hinted that the election results were sobering, though he used softer language than Cabello. "Review and rectify where we have to," he wrote.

Chavez swiftly sidelined those who openly questioned him during his 14 years in power. Maduro's narrow victory has given him a weaker mandate for keeping the disparate factions of the movement in line.

The factions include former soldiers like Cabello who joined Chavez in a failed 1992 coup. Maduro comes from the ranks of leftist political and labor groups that united to help elect Chavez president in 1998. Chavez's relatives, led by his brother Adan, form another bloc.

"His legitimacy comes from the fact that Chavez named him as his successor and other factions were forced to accept it," said Grais-Targow. "But he faces this landscape where the other main figure, Diosdado Cabello, could elevate his role and have more power. There are also governors who have bases of support and could pose challenges."

Anger over past Chavista fissures surfaced amid Monday's tensions. Adan Chavez blamed two former Chavista politicians for disturbances in Barinas. "They are traitors of the revolution," Chavez told state television.

The powerful state political apparatus built by Chavez is standing with Maduro.

The National Electoral Council, where four of the five directors are accused by the opposition of having ties to the government, has so far brushed off the demand for a recount. Lucena, the council president, suggested Capriles take his complaints to other channels - presumably the Supreme Court, which is stacked with Chavista sympathizers.

Another thing Maduro may have going for him: Other Chavista leaders don't have considerable big bases of their own after years in Chavez's shadow. That may motivate them to stay united as long as possible.

"His leadership will not be publicly questioned for at least the first year of his government," said Moya-Ocampos. "After that, if he fails to resolve domestic problems, members of the PSUV and the military will step forward and begin to publicly question his leadership."

Some politicians and diplomats who have met Maduro, who was Chavez's foreign minister for six years, describe him as a smooth negotiator.

Former longtime U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts who attended Chavez's funeral in representation of the United States and met with Maduro, said he thinks that given the pressures "enveloping" Maduro, the pragmatist in him will show.

"He has an excellent sense of humor. He connects with people. He's bright. He's very easy to underestimate and that's a mistake for people," Delahunt said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"His background I think would lead some to believe that he is not prepared. He is prepared. He has excellent political skills,"

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Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

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