Maduro celebrates ‘record’ re-election but he’s still standing in the shadow of Chavez

Hand-picked by the iconic former leader, president has managed to stay on top despite a turbulent five-year term

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 4:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 8:10pm

One year ago few could see crisis-beset Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro re-elected for a second term – and yet on Sunday he powered to another six-year mandate.

This despite presiding over the South American country’s ruined economy, where food shortages are the norm and protests last year left 125 dead.

“We won again! We triumphed again! We are the force of history turned into a permanent popular victory!” he cried out to a crowd of supporters, claiming that he won a “record” victory.

Maduro’s nearest challenger, Henri Falcon, took just over 22 per cent of the vote – and said he did not accept the final results.

Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver, union leader and foreign minister, never doubted that he would be re-elected in a vote that he himself moved forward from December to May.

Yet the president has struggled to gain the same respect as his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who led Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013 and who anointed Maduro as his successor to perpetuate his own populist leftist ideology.

“His authority was born out of the legacy of Chavez, but now we have a different Maduro, who knows that he is strong and is more aggressive,” said Felix Seijas, head of the polling agency Delphos.

Maduro’s first term in office was turbulent: the economic crisis, rising poverty and crime, violent street protests, international sanctions, and millions of Venezuelans fleeing their country.

“Five years ago I was a novice,” he said recently. “Now I am a stand-up Maduro, with battle experience, who has confronted the oligarchy and imperialism. I have arrived, stronger than ever.”

Maduro’s critics accuse the president – first elected by a razor-thin margin in 2013 – of grossly mismanaging the economy and becoming an all-powerful “dictator”.

To sideline the opposition and strengthen his grip on power, last year Maduro created a Constituent Assembly packed with loyalists that has authority over the opposition-controlled legislature, the National Assembly.

Chavez considered Maduro “a pure and hard revolutionary”. But some former Chavez supporters are sceptical.

“He is perhaps a Madurista, but not a Chavista,” said Ana Elisa Osorio, a former minister under Chavez.

Maduro claims he is “a democratic president” battling an “economic war” launched by the political right with US support.

“He has been underestimated, not only by the opposition but also by a lot of Chavistas,” said Andres Canizalez, a political analyst. “But he has benefited from mistakes by others, managing also to neutralise his adversaries.”

Canizalez said Maduro “went through a metamorphosis and these elections are the culmination of that process”.

Lacking the charm of Chavez, Maduro tried to copy his predecessor with long daily television appearances, using popular language and anti-imperialist rhetoric.

But he has gradually begun to create his own image.

Describing himself as a “worker president”, the portly socialist leader with the thick black moustache drives a van, makes fun of his poor command of English, dances to salsa music and is ever-present on social media networks.

Passionate about baseball, he was a rock music guitarist in his youth.

Maduro often appears with his wife Cilia Flores, a former prosecutor. He is also the father of “Nicolasito”, a 27-year-old Constituent Assembly lawmaker born to his first marriage.

In a sign of his changing image, the president’s campaign slogan this year was “Everyone with Maduro, loyalty and the future.” In 2013, it was “Chavez forever, Maduro president.”