HUGO Chavez, one of the most outspoken South American leaders of the past century, was never going to be an easy act to follow. But Sunday’s narrow and contested vote has just made it even tougher for his newly elected successor, Nicolas Maduro.

After the closest presidential race in Venezuela’s recent history, Maduro has the smallest of mandates to deal with the huge challenges of ruling the country, maintaining the unity of the ruling coalition and tackling a host of chronic problems ranging from power cuts and food shortage to inflation and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Having shed more than half a million votes for the ruling party compared with Hugo Chavez’s re-election last October, Maduro will now have to tread even more carefully in balancing the political and social revolution demanded by his supporters with the economic adjustments needed to avoid further alienation of the wider electorate. Or to put it another way, to what extent should he be an echo of Chavez?

A low-key figure until this year, Maduro campaigned on his proximity to the charismatic leader who handpicked him as his successor.

By one count, he has publicly invoked his predecessor’s name more than 7,000 times in the past month and a half, repeatedly declaring “We are all Chavez”. But this result has underscored another oft-heard refrain in Venezuela: Maduro is no Chavez.

Riding a wave of public sympathy after the death of Chavez and bolstered by his status as the dead leader’s chosen heir, Maduro looked set to be coasting to victory up until a week before the election, with most polls forecasting he would win by at least 14 percentage points. Instead he scraped into power by a margin of less than two against a rival - Henrique Capriles - that Chavez had soundly beaten by double-digits just six months ago.

Ruling party politicians will want to know what turned 680,000 votes off their revolutionary message and on to the pro-business platform of a member of Venezuela’s privileged elite.

Diosdado Cabello, the most likely rival to Maduro within the Chavismo movement, said the party needed a period of reflection.

By arrangement with the Guardian