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Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro barely wins Venezuela presidential vote

By Frank Bajak

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 14 2013 11:03 p.m. MDT

Venezuela's interim President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters as he arrives to cast his ballot in the presidential election in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, April 14, 2013.Venezuelan electoral officials announced Sunday evening that voters narrowly elected Maduro, Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor as president in a razor-close special election.

Enric Marti, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, won a razor-thin victory in Sunday's special presidential election, edging the opposition's leader by only about 300,000 votes, electoral officials announced.

Maduro's stunningly close victory over Henrique Capriles came after a campaign in which the winner promised to carry on Chavez's self-proclaimed socialist revolution while the challenger's main message was that Chavez's 14-year regime put Venezuela on the road to ruin.

Maduro, acting president since Chavez's death, held a double-digit advantage in opinion polls just two weeks ago, but electoral officials said he got just 50.7 percent of the votes to 49.1 percent for Capriles with nearly all ballots counted.

Chavistas set off fireworks and blasted car horns as they cruised downtown Caracas in jubilation.

At Capriles' campaign headquarters, people hung their heads quietly as the results were announced by an electoral council stacked with government loyalists. Many started crying; others just stared at TV screens in disbelief.

"I can't believe this. This can't be happening. The votes should all be recounted to be 100 percent sure who won," said Jenny Morales, 26, a volunteer who handed out posters and leaflets during the campaign.

The mood lightened after another electoral council director, Vicente Diaz, proposed an audit of the vote.

There was no immediate word from Capriles, but Maduro addressed a crowd from the presidential palace after winning a six-year term. In a booming voice, he called his victory further proof that Chavez "continues to be invincible, that he continues to win battles."

He said that Capriles had called him before the results were announced to suggest a "pact" and that Maduro refused.

Maduro, a longtime foreign minister to Chavez, rode a wave of sympathy for the charismatic leader to victory, pinning his hopes on the immense loyalty for his boss among millions of poor beneficiaries of government largesse and the powerful state apparatus that Chavez skillfully consolidated.

Capriles' main campaign weapon was to simply emphasize "the incompetence of the state" in handling the world's largest oil reserves.

Analyst David Smilde at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank predicted the victory would prove pyrrhic and make Maduro extremely vulnerable.

"It will make people in his coalition think that perhaps he is not the one to lead the revolution forward," Smilde said.

In a hint of discontent within Chavista ranks, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who many consider Maduro's main rival, expressed dismay at the tight outcome.

He tweeted: "The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism. It's contradictory that the poor sectors of the population vote for their longtime exploiters."

Millions of Venezuelans were lifted out of poverty under Chavez, but many also believe his government not only squandered, but plundered, much of the $1 trillion in oil revenues during his tenure.

Venezuelans are afflicted by chronic power outages, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages, and rampant crime — one of the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates — that the opposition said worsened after Chavez succumbed March 5 to cancer.

"This is a result in which the 'official winner' appears as the biggest loser," said Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales. "The 'official loser' — the opposition — emerges even stronger than it did six months ago. These are very delicate situations in any political system, especially when there is so much mistrust of institutions."

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