Saturday April 27, 2013

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A postelection crisis appears to be setting into a slow boil in Venezuela, with the government and opposition trading bitter accusations but holding back for the moment from moves that would escalate into direct conflict.

The government is threatening to jail opposition leader Henrique Capriles on charges of masterminding postelection violence but has given no indication it has any immediate intention of acting against him. Capriles, meanwhile, is boycotting an audit of the vote and plans to challenge his narrow loss in court. He is almost certain to lose in the government-controlled court system, but hasn’t hinted that he will call his followers to the streets anytime soon.

"This isn’t a struggle just for one day," Capriles said late Thursday. "This wasn’t a fight for the presidency, rather to have a better country, a different one. A country in which institutions function."

For Capriles, open confrontation could bolster accusations that he only wants violence. His strategy for now appears to be waiting out the socialist government, which is struggling to keep its narrow margin of popularity from being eroded by food shortages and daily electrical blackouts that independent observers and the opposition link to mismanagement of the economy and national infrastructure.

For the government, jailing Capriles while he’s seeking resolution in the court system could bring international condemnation and drive more people into the opposition camp.

"There are ways to express opposition to the government without risking violence or confrontation. It’s a very fine line. Capriles has shown he’s very smart and he can figure out where that line is," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "The government, I think, they have to keep up some of the rhetorical attacks and threats ... at the same time they have to be careful not to go too far, that would provoke a strong backlash within Venezuela but also among Venezuela’s neighbors."

The conflict is not just rhetorical, however. The government says postelection attacks by Capriles supporters killed nine members of the ruling Chavista movement, left dozens injured and damaged government offices and medical clinics. The opposition and independent observers dispute the accusation.

Meanwhile, the opposition says hundreds of government workers have been fired and threatened with punishment for supporting the opposition. And a 35-year-old American documentary filmmaker, Timothy Tracy, was arrested Wednesday and is being held by Venezuela’s intelligence service, accused of being a spy who paid right-wing youth groups to create post-vote unrest. The government said Thursday that it planned to charge him promptly, then repeated that statement on Friday, without providing details.

A member of Venezuela’s top electoral authority said Friday that it had formally decided not to meet opposition demands for a top-to-bottom audit of the April 14 presidential election, a move that will keep tensions high over the almost evenly split and contested vote.

Vicente Diaz, the only member of the five-person National Electoral Council not seen as being firmly pro-government, told reporters that he had abstained from the council’s vote because it did not include a review of registers containing voters’ signatures and fingerprints.

President Nicolas Maduro, 50, was declared the winner of the election by a 267,000-vote margin out of 14.9 million ballots cast, or less than 2 percent of the total. Capriles says voting rolls included 600,000 dead people and a review of the registers would reveal votes cast in the names of the deceased.

Venezuela has a relatively advanced, multi-step voting system in in which citizens cast their vote on a computer, which generates a paper ticket that they place in a ballot box, before signing and placing their fingerprint in a register. At the end of election day, each computer generates a paper tally of votes.

A series of government officials have indicated in recent days that the vote audit would consist simply of matching the strips of paper tallying votes with the individual tickets in the ballot box. Capriles says the audit would show that those tallies match but won’t uncover other types of fraud, like voting by people using the names of the dead.

"The members of the National Electoral don’t want you to see what’s in the voting register!" Capriles wrote on Twitter Friday. "How many dead people voted?"

While this week has seen a series of statements from high-ranking officials that they are ready to jail Capriles in connection with post-vote violence, Maduro appeared to be softening that tone on Friday as he toured the country reviewing infrastructure projects and promising more efficient responses to complaints of government mismanagement.

"We are all going to turn ourselves into popular communicators," he said. "Let’s work together and build a stable revolutionary majority, which can even reach 70 percent ... let’s knock on the door of the house of the people. Let’s tell them our truth."

---------- Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fisanchezn

Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mweissenstein