With all the resources of state power overwhelmingly and indiscriminately stacked to his advantage, Nicolas Maduro's failure to win Venezuela's presidential election by a convincing margin, as predicted by polls, marks a dramatic defeat for Chavismo and its handpicked successor.
With less than two months since President Hugo Chavez's death and barely half the votes, Maduro has no popular mandate but will undoubtedly claim one by continuing to relentlessly invoke the name of Hugo Chavez.
Whereas opposition leader Henrique Capriles had less than two weeks to campaign, Maduro effectively began electioneering on December 10, 2012, when Chavez officially anointed him as his heir before departing for cancer treatment in Cuba.
Nearly three months of consistent constitutional violations and blatant abuses of power ensued. The complete lack of transparency of Hugo Chavez's medical condition was accompanied by the systematic manipulation of state institutions to choreograph the transition of power to Nicolas Maduro. Despite attempts to emulate Chavez's fiery rhetoric and campaign tactics, the current electoral outcome has largely exposed this entire process as a farce.
In theory, a close election outcome in a bitterly polarized society should trigger a process of outreach and reconciliation. However, in Venezuela it is likely provoke a period of greater political uncertainty and social instability and further radicalization of Chavista forces.
Maduro and his allies will firmly dig in their heels and use whatever means necessary to neutralize the opposition. Nothing can be excluded from the state's arsenal of measures, including the threat of violence or its actual use, even if confronted by peaceful expressions of protest.
By manipulating complete control of state institutions, primarily the courts, security services and electoral authority, Maduro and friends will use any pretext to crack down on the opposition.
In the days and weeks ahead, democracy in Venezuela, and throughout Latin America, will be fully tested. The international community has a responsibility not to stand by idly. In particular, Latin American states beyond the Chavista sphere of influence must raise their voices to support a fair democratic process, and not just a free one. As the rising regional power and global player, Brazil must lead the charge if necessary.
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