CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s government-friendly electoral council quickly certified the razor-thin presidential victory of Hugo Chavez’ hand-picked successor Monday, apparently ignoring opposition demands for a recount as anti-government protests broke out in the bitterly polarized nation.
People stood on balconies banging pots and pans in protest as the electoral council’s president proclaimed Nicolas Maduro president for the next six years. In the evening, they did it again, a raucous clanging in neighbourhoods rich and poor, including the one surrounding the presidential palace where Maduro was holding a news conference.
In the afternoon, thousands of young people clashed with National Guard troops in riot gear who fired tear gas and plastic bullets to block the protesters back from marching on the city centre. The demonstrators threw stones and pieces of concrete. Protests also were reported in provincial cities.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Maduro was elected Sunday by a margin of 50.8 per cent to 49 per cent over challenger Henrique Capriles — a difference of just 262,000 votes out of 14.9 million cast, according to an updated official count released Monday.
Sworn in as acting president after Chavez’s March 5 death from cancer, Maduro squandered a double-digit advantage in opinion polls in two weeks as Capriles highlighted what he called the ruling Chavistas’ abysmal management of the oil-rich country’s economy and infrastructure, citing myriad woes including food and medicine shortages, worsening power outages and rampant crime.
By contrast, Chavez had defeated Capriles by a nearly 11-point margin in October.
Until every vote is counted, Venezuela has an “illegitimate president and we denounce that to the world,” Capriles tweeted Monday.
One of the five members of the National Electoral Council, independent Vicente Diaz, also backed a full recount, as did the United States and the Organization of American States.
But the electoral council president, Tibisay Lucena, said in announcing the outcome Sunday that it was “irreversible.” At the proclamation ceremony Monday, she called Venezuela “a champion of democracy” and defended its electronic vote system as bullet-proof.
Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, had demanded the proclamation be suspended. He convoked the pot-banging protest and asked supporters to gather outside the electoral council Tuesday
Capriles claimed that members of the military, “an important group in various cities,” had been detained for trying to guarantee a free and fair election. He said they had been ordered to ignore abuses they witnessed. Capriles did not offer further details, such as how many were involved.
He said a vote count by his campaign produced “a different result” and it received more than 3,200 complaints of irregularities — all by pro-government forces. He demanded every single ballot be recounted.
Maduro’s campaign manager, Jorge Rodriguez, called Capriles’ actions “a coup attempt,” while Maduro alleged such a plot was in preparation.
Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said Capriles’ goal in demanding the recount without ever uttering the word “fraud” appears to undermine Maduro’s legitimacy without provoking a political crisis or jeopardizing his role as opposition leader.
The winner is to be formally inaugurated Friday for a six-year-term.
Maduro said during his victory speech Sunday night. He did not, however, endorse a manual recount of individual ballots.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said a “100 per cent audit” of the results would be “an important, prudent and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results.”
The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, also called for a “full recount.”
Under Venezuela’s voting system, 54 per cent of the tallies printed out by individual voting machines are routinely audited and that was done Sunday night, Lucena said.
Individual ballots are not included in such audits.
No independent observer teams monitored the election as Chavez’s government in recent years has rejected them. Instead it invited witnesses to “accompany the process.”
The challenger’s camp has not explained how it intends to proceed with the recount demand.
Venezuelan election law does not specify how a recount might proceed or whether a candidate even has the right to demand one, said Dashiell Lopez, co-ordinator of the independent voting rights group SUMATE.
He said an attempt to carry out a recount in December in Bolivar state failed because it wasn’t sought in the legally required seven days.
The logistics alone are daunting.
A total of 39,319 boxes of paper ballot receipts were emitted by Venezuela’s electronic voting system Sunday. They are now stored in warehouses under the control of the military. Those receipts would need to be checked against vote count printouts emitted by each individual voting machine. Those results would then be checked with the electoral council’s central tally.
The electronic voting system itself was never questioned by the opposition and it has drawn praise from institutions such as the Carter Center as among the most reliable.
Analysts called the election result, which followed an often ugly campaign full of mudslinging, a disaster for Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver believed to have close ties to Cuba.
A lacklustre public speaker whose standard rhetoric features attacks on “the extreme right” that he says is constantly conspiring against him, Maduro must now endeavour to hold together a movement built around the magnetism of the now-departed Chavez.
A hint of internal trouble to come came in a tweet by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who many consider Maduro’s main rival within their movement.
“The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism,” he said.
Few outside Venezuela had bigger stakes in the race than Cuban President Raul Castro, whose country receives generous subsidized oil exports from Venezuela in exchange for sending doctors, military advisories and other help to Venezuela.
Capriles had promised to end that exchange, as well as end close ties with other countries with questionable human rights and democracy records including Belarus and Iran.
Castro issued a statement congratulating Maduro for “this transcendental triumph.”
Maduro, a longtime foreign minister to Chavez, had counted on a wave of sympathy for the charismatic leader, and in victory, asked his spirit for help, holding up a crucifix pinned to a card showing Chavez.
The late president built up immense loyalty among millions of poor beneficiaries of government largesse and constructed a powerful state political apparatus.
Among the problems facing the new president are, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation and one of the world’s highest homicide and kidnapping rates. The opposition said that only worsened after Chavez disappeared to Cuba in December for what would be his final surgery.
Maduro will face no end of hard choices, and political scientist Javier Corrales, of Amherst College, said he has shown no skills for tackling them.
Maduro has “a penchant for blaming everything on his ‘adversaries’ — capitalism, imperialism, the bourgeoisie, the oligarchs — so it is hard to figure how exactly he would address any policy challenge …”
Maduro inherits a presidency made far more powerful under Chavez, who often succeeded in getting the National Assembly to let him rule by decree.
The ruling socialists dominate the assembly, and legislative elections will not take place for another two years.
The opposition’s main legal tool for ousting Maduro is a possible recall referendum, but that cannot take place until midway through his six-year-term.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez, Jorge Rueda, E. Eduardo Castillo and Christopher Toothaker in Caracas and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.
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