Chavez's heir to take over divided Venezuela (+video)

By Frank Bajak

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 15 2013 7:29 a.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, has officially won Venezuela's presidential election by a stunningly narrow margin that highlights rising discontent over problems ranging from crime to power blackouts. His rival demanded a recount, portending more headaches for a country shaken by the death of its dominating leader.

One key Chavista leader expressed dismay over the outcome of Sunday's election, which was supposed to cement the self-styled "Bolivarian Revolution" of their beloved president as Venezuela's destiny. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who many consider Maduro's main rival within their movement, tweeted: "The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism."

Maduro's victory followed an often ugly, mudslinging campaign in which the winner promised to carry on Chavez's legacy, while challenger Henrique Capriles' main message was that Chavez put this country with the world's largest oil reserves on the road to ruin.

Despite the ill feelings, both men sent their supporters home and urged them to refrain from violence. Capriles insisted on a recount and Maduro said he was open to one, though it was not immediately clear if election officials might permit it.

"We are not going to recognize a result until each vote of Venezuelans is counted," Capriles said. "This struggle has not ended."

Maduro, meanwhile, said, "Let 100 percent of the ballot boxes be opened. ... We're going to do it; we have no fear."

Maduro, acting president since Chavez's March 5 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 compared to 49.1 percent for Capriles, with nearly all ballots counted.

The margin was about 234,935 votes out of 14.8 million cast. Turnout was 78 percent, down from just over 80 percent in the October election that Chavez won by a nearly 11-point margin over Capriles.

Chavistas set off fireworks and raced through downtown Caracas blasting horns in jubilation. In a victory speech, Maduro told a crowd outside the presidential palace that his victory was further proof that Chavez "continues to be invincible."

But analysts called the slim margin a disaster for Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver in the radical wing of Chavismo who is believed to have close ties to Cuba.

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.

Later, Capriles emerged to angrily reject the official totals: "It is the government that has been defeated."

He said his campaign reported "a result that is different from the results announced today."

"The biggest loser today is you," Capriles said, directly addressing Maduro through the camera. "The people don't love you."

Venezuela's electronic voting system is completely digital, but also generates a paper receipt for each vote, making a vote-by-vote recount possible.

Capriles, an athletic 40-year-old state governor, had mocked and belittled Maduro as a poor, bland imitation of Chavez.

Maduro said during his victory speech that Capriles had called him before the results were announced to suggest a "pact" and that Maduro refused. Capriles' camp did not comment on Maduro's claim, though Capriles began his speech by declaring he doesn't "make pacts with lies or corruption."

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