Game of Thrones, Caracas edition

After last Sunday's disputed electoral victory by Chávez heir Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela, it seemed, was a country on the brink. Many commentators assumed that further anarchy was unavoidable, positing mass unrest along the lines of the Arab Spring (in which the demonstrators triumphed) or post-election Iran in 2009 (where they didn't). Both scenarios, it should be noted, assumed an uptick in violence. As assumptions go, this was logical enough. In Venezuela, society is divided almost equally between pro-regime and anti-regime groups, and the confrontation between the irresistible force of passionate opposition and the immovable object of government intransigence seemed likely to result in the violent destruction of one or both.

And then, all at once, the immovable object moved, leaving the irresistible force a bit unsure about how to proceed....

In the immediate wake of the election, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles and his supporters called for a full recount of the votes, based on the extremely narrow margin of Maduro's victory. For days the National Electoral Council (CNE) -- a body that, while nominally independent, is dominated 4-1 by avowed government supporters -- had repeatedly declared itself firmly against that demand.

Yet on Thursday night, after a nine-hour deliberation session behind closed doors, the Council announced that, given the extraordinary circumstances, they were prepared to allow for an open audit of the 46 percent of electoral centers that had not already been covered by the 54 percent "instantly" audited under the country's electronic voting system. When Venezuelans vote, the machine emits a printed receipt, which the voter then checks and deposits into a sealed container. When audited, a sample of 2/3 of the receipts are checked against the electronic records to see if they match. The decision means that a 100 percent audit of the centers will occur, but not according to the terms Capriles and his supporters had previously been insisting upon (a full recount of every single receipt).

In a press conference held soon afterwards, Capriles accepted the ruling. The process is slated to take place over the next month, during which time several hundred boxes will be reviewed daily in front of observers from either camp.

The reactions among Capriles' supporters to this compromise have been mixed. Some approve, while others strongly reject it. The opposition candidate will now face a vital thirty-day struggle to keep fissures within his own base from undermining his role.

"This is a huge victory for the opposition camp," says José Morales, a professor at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas. "The audit is quite likely to open a can of worms for the government, evidencing further irregularities such as multiple and ghost votes, which will deeply undermine Maduro's legitimacy."

Others, however, are less sanguine. There is concern that the thirty-day process is simply a ploy for stalling the opposition's momentum, and that the government would never have offered such a deal if there were any risk that it might lose. Despite the pending audit, Nicolás Maduro, the government candidate, was actually sworn into office Friday at a surreal inauguration event that was boycotted by most of the opposition and several prominent heads of state. Hugo Chávez was in attendance, in a sense, as a recording of the deceased president -- introduced as the Supreme Commander of the Revolution even in death -- singing the national anthem was blared across the inauguration. (Just to make things even weirder, at one point a random man ran over to Maduro during his speech and wrested the microphone away so that he could introduce himself to the audience.)

Yon Goicoechea, a well-known opposition figure who headed the student movement that handed the government its only clear electoral defeat back in 2007, assured me that the National Electoral Council's supposed concession was a "farce" and that accepting it was a "national tragedy."

According to Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan minister of planning who now teaches at Harvard, this development is noteworthy above all for showing how compromised the nominally independent electoral powers actually are.

"The Electoral Council officially proclaimed a winner in 36 hours," he says. "Record time. They also swore [Maduro] in after five days, a process that usually takes three months."

When then-President Chávez won election against Capriles a mere six months ago, he points out, it only took the government seven days to audit 54 percent of the machines even though Capriles lost by a much larger margin. The remarkable increase in expedience is, given the circumstances, suspicious.

"It was internal and external pressure that forced this concession," says Hausmann. "Brazil and UNASUR's support for Maduro was conditional on a recount. This illustrates the ridiculousness of the CNE's claims to represent the law. It took them the better part of five minutes to change their mind when the government asked that the recount go through."

By securing concessions from the Bolivarian Revolution and wresting a narrow electoral showing from a candidate that had been 20 points ahead mere weeks earlier, Capriles has already accomplished much that would have previously seemed impossible. Yet miracles somehow seem less noteworthy in hindsight, and assuaging the passions and doubts of his supporters during the next month will likely require new magical feats. Otherwise: a long winter is coming. 

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.



Eastern Europeans on trial in Libya

Earlier this month, Libya's Supreme Military Court reviewed an appeal by 19 Ukrainians, three Belarusians, and two Russians who stand accused of aiding the regime of Muammar Qaddafi by helping his forces to maintain military equipment during the revolution. The defendants maintain that they are engineers who were working for an oil company and were not politically motivated to assist the Qaddafi regime.

The group was arrested on August 27, 2011, just after Tripoli was liberated by revolutionary militias but the circumstances that led to their arrest are not clear. In March 2012, three of the Ukrainians were cleared by the Libyan authorities and sent home due to efforts and negotiations of Ukrainian diplomats, while the rest remained in detention. In June 2012, the Tripoli Military Court sentenced the remaining Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians to ten years of imprisonment. One of the Russians was sentenced for life.

During the revolution, Qaddafi's regime was repeatedly accused of hiring foreign mercenaries, mainly from neighboring African countries, to help his troops crush the popular revolt. It produced a major backlash against foreigners in Libya immediately after the revolution and led to the arrest of thousands of suspected mercenaries.

Libya's current relationship with Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus is anything but friendly. Many Libyans hold the view that these countries supported Qaddafi during the revolution and that our relations with them should remain distant. Russia repeatedly criticized the international NATO-led military operation in Libya following the U.N. resolution on "targeted measures" to protect civilians. Russia then abstained during the Security Council vote and did not veto the resolution.

Indeed, Qaddafi had a good relationship with Russian and some Eastern European leaders. When Qaddafi was losing friends fast and the popular revolt against his regime gained momentum, Belarus' dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, stood by him until the end: There were even reports that his government supported Qaddafi with arms and fighting forces. Then there was the very personal connection between Qaddafi and his blonde Ukrainian nurse, who was described as one of his closest confidantes. It's said that Qaddafi never travelled anywhere without her by his side.

Despite Libyan popular opinion, the government has made it clear that it will work to normalize relations with all nations regardless of their position during the revolution (and especially concerning Russia). During a press conference, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan emphasized the historical and strategic reasons for his government to have a good working relationship with Moscow. Russia was Libya's main weapons supplier before the revolution, and the new authorities are currently using many of the same weapons to equip security units. In addition, Libya cannot afford to be enemies with a powerful state, especially when it is seeking to lift the arms embargo imposed on the country by the U.N. Security Council.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has been assisting the detained Ukrainians throughout the trial, and continues to maintain their innocence. If the convictions against them are upheld, Ukraine will seek to have them repatriated to serve out their sentences. The Russian Foreign Ministry has called the sentences "unfair and unjustifiably harsh," and is urging the Libyan authorities to release its citizens and allow their return home. However, both countries expressed respect for Libya's sovereignty and its judicial procedures.

Earlier this week, Libya's General National Congress (the country's interim legislature) made an amendment to the Military Penal Code, banning military courts from trying civilians and ordering that all ongoing military trials involving civilians be halted. The amendment also emphasized that cases involving both civilians and military personnel would fall under the jurisdiction of the public prosecutor, not the military. (In this case the public prosecutor has preference over the military prosecutor.) This amendment could halt the appeal process for the defendants, and instead they may face a new trial in a civilian court.

This trial is only one episode of the many challenges that post-Qaddafi Libya will face with the once-friendly regimes in Eastern Europe, especially since Russia and Ukraine are trying to safeguard business deals that were signed with the Qaddafi's regime. (These include long-term arms deals as well as agreements with Russian oil and construction companies.) Libya is currently reviewing all of the former regime's major contracts. If it turns out that the contracts signed with the Russian and Eastern European companies were based more on political grounds than on solid economic judgment, the contracts could be cancelled, complicating Libya's future relations with the countries concerned.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.