Chavez’s Ally Nicolas Maduro Wins Venezuela Vote, Opposition Protests

Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who became Hugo Chavez’s protege, was declared the winner of Venezuela’s presidential election on Sunday but the opposition refused to accept the result and demanded a recount of all the votes.

Chavez, who ruled for 14 years, anointed Maduro as his political heir in his last speech to the country before succumbing to cancer on March 5. That gave his former vice president and foreign minister a huge advantage but Capriles narrowed the gap in the final days of the campaign and the result was much closer than many had expected. Photo: MPP Relaciones Exteriores/Flickr

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.

The 50-year-old former bus driver, whom Chavez named as his preferred heir before dying from cancer, edged out opposition challenger Henrique Capriles with 50.7 percent of the votes in Sunday’s election, according to election board returns. Capriles took 49.1 percent, a difference of just 235,000 ballots.

Maduro’s narrow win came as a shock to many ardent Chavez loyalists, who had become accustomed to his double-digit election victories during his 14 years in power, including an 11 percentage point win over Capriles last October, writes Reuters.

Mr. Capriles said he wouldn’t recognize the election results “until every vote is recounted.” He said his campaign documented 3,200 election-related incidents that cast doubt on the result.

“I didn’t fight against a candidate today, but against the whole abuse of power,” said Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, demanding a recount.

“Mr. Maduro, you were the loser … This system is collapsing, it’s like a castle of sand – touch it and it falls.”

Government supporters immediately gathered to celebrate outside the Miraflores presidential palace, where Maduro paid an emotional tribute to Chavez, the socialist leader who named him as his successor in his last speech to the nation before dying last month from cancer.

“We won a just, legal, constitutional election,” Mr. Maduro said on the balcony of Venezuela’s Miraflores presidential palace, as fireworks boomed overhead and a crowd of red-shirted supporters waved flags and cheered. “If I had lost by one vote, I would have accepted my responsibility.”

Some supporters seemed to pay little attention to his speech, and it was only when he played a recording of the late president singing the national anthem that they burst into life.

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

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.

Capriles, 40, had argued that voters were tired of divisive Chavez-era politics, and vowed to tackle daily worries such as violent crime, high inflation and creaking utilities.

Mr. Maduro, a tall and mustachioed former foreign minister, will be tested quickly. He inherits a country with the world’s largest oil reserves but with growing financial strains despite almost a decade of high oil prices. Inflation is expected to reach more than 30% this year, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The government’s budget deficit ended last year at roughly 15% of annual economic output—far higher than crisis-hit European nations. And a lack of dollars has led to shortages of everything from milk to corn flour, the staple of the Venezuelan diet.

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.

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