Of symbolic victory for Venezuela opposition
CARACAS – The national campaign headquarters for Henrique Capriles is in a nondescript five story building, attached on the ground level to a conveniently located pharmacy that likely served as a convenient place for campaign staffers in need of a headache pill this week.
Capriles headquarters – dauntingly called the 'Simon Bolivar National Command' – was filled with staff who spent the week rattling their brains trying to figure out how to get a re-count after Sunday's election that saw them lose an election by about 267,000 of 14.9 million votes that were cast.
Capriles refused to admit defeat, and spent the week aggressively calling for a hand by hand national recount.
But initially the National Electoral Council ratified the election results and rebuffed recount requests, and the president of the Supreme Court announced there were no grounds for a manual recount.
Meanwhile, Venezuela sank in violence and political uncertainty with sporadic running street clashes between supporters on each side. (Eight Maduro supporters were killed, the government says by opposition-incited violence, which Capriles denied.)
International support for a recount waned, and even the secretary general of the Organisation of American States – a body traditionally critical of the government – indicated Nicolas Maduro was the legitimate president-elect.
All week Maduro was planning for a Friday inauguration to seal the deal.
Back at the Capriles headquarters on Thursday, young campaign staff scurried about, many refreshing their Twitter feeds with the latest news while Capriles top advisors huddled on the top floor strategising.
On the third floor a sign on a door read 'Mantener La Puerta Cerrada' – Keep the Door Closed.
It was perfect symbolism for a campaign whose door of opportunity for a recount was inches away from being slammed shut and dead bolted.
But right when one thought the post election mess in Venezuela couldn't get any crazier, guess what, it just did.
Late on Thursday, just hours ahead of Maduro's Friday inauguration, the National Electoral Council jarred the door open again, and surprisingly declared they would audit 46% of the votes.
A clearly thrilled Capriles, who was all smiles, then held a press conference at 11pm at his headquarters where he declared victory for his cause.
At the last moment, Capriles learned he would live to fight another day.
Seven questions now:
1) Why will the National Electoral Council (CNE) audit only 46%?
As part of Venezuela's regular election procedures, 54% of the votes are audited on election day. This happens in all elections, and is standard procedure. Many international observers have commented that Venezuela's election system is one of the best run in the world. So the CNE decision is now to audit the other 46% of the votes that were not audited on election day.
2) Does the audit mean a re-count?
No, an audit will mean they take a large sample of the 46% of the votes to double check the results. It does not mean there will be a hand recount.
3) How long will the audit take?
It's not fully clear, but the expectation is between 3-5 weeks.
4) What happens with interim president Nicolas Maduro?
His inauguration as president goes forward. Likely by the time you read this, he will officially be president.
5) If Capriles was calling for a 100% manual recount, but was only given an audit of 46% of the vote, why is he so happy?
Publicly Capriles was calling for full re-count, yes, but behind the scenes his advisors knew it was almost certain that request would be rejected by the CNE. So the actual formal request the campaign made to the CNE on Wednesday was for an audit of the 46% - something his advisors knew was a possibility. So Capriles campaign got exactly what they wanted.
6) What are the chances the results of the audit will overturn the election in Capriles’ favour?
It's never a good idea to rule anything out in Venezuela, but the consensus is it's probably unlikely. But Capriles is now spinning the CNE decision as a victory for his side and his millions of supporters who took to the streets this week demanding a recount. Capriles can now save face politically. For Maduro, his first month as president there will be the distraction and annoyance of the ongoing audit of the results, but likely it will not pose a serious threat to his job security in the short term.
7) Could this decision lead to national reconciliation in the short term?
Very well could, as no matter what happens with the audit Capriles has some victory – even if it's symbolic – to hold onto. (If the audit confirms the initial results, it's likely he'll concede.) For Maduro and his 51% of the population, they can move forward with the most important prize of all: The Presidency. Look for tensions on both sides to calm down, at least for now.
Just before midnight on Thursday after Capriles finished his press conference, his campaign staff shuttered the building for the night. Capriles top campaign advisor was seen getting into a darkened SUV, and flashing a quick thumbs up and broad smile.
Too bad the pharmacy was closed, because another headache pill was probably needed for the next day. But this time from a hangover of celebration.
Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Maduro supporters flocked to central Caracas for his inauguration.