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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Nicolas Maduro declared winner of Venezuela poll

Despite leading a ruined economy, where food shortages are the norm and protests last year left 125 dead

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro celebrate after the National Electoral Council declared him winner of a poll rejected as invalid by his rivals, who called for fresh elections to be held later this year. Federico Parra / AFP Photo
Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro celebrate after the National Electoral Council declared him winner of a poll rejected as invalid by his rivals, who called for fresh elections to be held later this year. Federico Parra / AFP Photo

One year ago few could see crisis-beset Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro re-elected for a second term - and yet he powered to another six-year mandate, giving him a stranglehold on the presidency until 2025.

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.

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

Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader, and ex-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 respect as the legitimate successor to Hugo Chavez, who led Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013 and who anointed Mr 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," Felix Seijas, head of the polling agency Delphos, told AFP.

Mr 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 standup Maduro, with battle experience, who has confronted the oligarchy and imperialism. I have arrived, stronger than ever."

President 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 Mr Maduro created a Constituent Assembly packed with loyalists that has authority over the opposition-controlled legislature, the National Assembly.

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Chavez considered President Maduro "a pure and hard revolutionary." But some former Chavez supporters are skeptical.

"He is perhaps a Madurista, but not a Chavista," Ana Elisa Osorio, a former minister under Chavez, told Agence France-Presse.

President 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, an expert in political communication.

"But he has benefited from mistakes by others, managing also to neutralize his adversaries" within the socialist movement in power since 1999.

Mr Canizalez said that President Maduro "went through a metamorphosis and these elections are the culmination of that process."

Lacking the charm of Chavez, Mr Maduro had tried to copy his predecessor with long daily TV 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 rock music guitarist in his youth.

Mr 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."

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