Slim victory that tastes of defeat
Just hours after Nicolas Maduro was officially proclaimed the winner of Sunday’s elections, the normally traffic-choked streets of Caracas were almost empty on Monday evening, except for barricaded streets and bonfires at key intersections.
The state media networks were reporting attacks against Socialist Party headquarters around the country, the state TV network building was surrounded by screaming opposition groups, the homes of key pro-government figures had been attacked and, at this writing, some seven people had been reported killed in clashes with anti-government groups.
By Tuesday, government groups were out in force. We saw one group chasing and often beating people suspected of supporting the opposition.
Getting back to the hotel from a news conference at the presidential palace was like an obstacle course.
"People are afraid of a civil war," our driver told us.
That seems like an exaggeration, but there is no question that the way Sunday's presidential elections have played out has dramatically altered the highly charged political climate of Venezuela, destroying a fragile calm that had prevailed until now.
With only a 1.5 percent difference in favour of the government candidate, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles refused to accept the results, which he says are different from the official calculations, especially taking into account some 3,200 polling irregularities documented by the opposition.
Then he called for a recount of every single vote.
That might have been the solution, and the end of the problem. Instead, it has turned into a political confrontation that is becoming more serious by the minute.
Like salt into a wound
The government-stacked Electoral Council not only refused a full recount, but went ahead and proclaimed Maduro the official winner in a nationally televised ceremony the very next day.
It was like throwing salt into a wound.
True, the rules of the council call for an audit of 54 percent of the ballot boxes which, according to a complex mathematical formula, is supposed to be enough to confirm an outcome. But the problem here is not mathematical but political.
"This is a problem of governability," a former Latin American president who was invited to oversee the elections told me.
"We are very worried about where this will go and the repercussions for the region."
Maduro himself recognised before the end of the campaign that he needed a big win to "guarantee peace and stability".
He did not get it that big win, and one cannot help thinking that his slim victory tastes of defeat, while the opposition's defeat tastes of victory.
If the government is so absolutely sure that it won by some 250,000 votes, why does it not allow a full recount to prove Capriles wrong and dispel all doubts about who won?
I asked Venezuela's president-elect that exact question.
"To give in to the whims of the losing candidate?" he replied.
"In what country do they do a 54% recount as we have alrady done? In the United States, Obama won by a slim margin, in Mexico Calderon won with less than 0.25% of the vote. Our election system is impeccable."
Maduro said that Capriles was a sore loser who wanted to destabilise the government.
The difference of course is that as recent history proves, the confrontation level here is much greater than in the US or even Mexico, where there were also serious questions about the outcome.
Maduro is trying to show that he will not be intimidated or pushed around by a clearly emboldened opposition, which sees Chavez’ successor as weak.
Yet by digging in his heels and refusing to show flexibility at such a critical hour, the president elect may be making a mistake that will cost Venezuela dearly.
"Capriles may not be able to prove that he won, but by the same token Maduro‘s refusal to allow the recount will leave the impression that he lost," said one opponent, reflecting the opinion of a great many Venezuelans.