Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party was returned to power by the slenderest of margins this morning, as the appointed heir of the late Hugo Chavez won the country’s general election by less than two per cent of the vote – prompting calls for a recount from the opposition.
The victory left Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, in power, but severely weakened after a delivering a much poorer than expected performance that analysts have warned could open the door to factional in-fighting in the coming months.
Despite his narrow loss, the result was a huge boost for the youthful opposition leader Henrique Capriles, 41, who was heavily defeated last October, losing by 11 per cent to the charismatic Mr Chavez who died last month after 14 years in power.
Within an hour of the result being declared, Mr Capriles gave an impassioned speech declaring “the fight is not finished” while adding that he would not accept the result “until I’ve counted every vote in Venezuela”.
Mr Capriles said his campaign tally of votes came up with, in his words, “a result that is different from the results announced today.”
This time around Mr Capriles ran an aggressive campaign, attacking the legacy of “El Comandante” which he said had delivered sharply rising inflation, spiraling murder rates, food shortages and, in provincial cities, increasingly frequent power cuts.
The attacks appeared to have hit home, with the Mr Capriles’s Justice First party narrowing the gap with the ruling Socialist Party to 1.5 per cent; Mr Capriles lost to Mr Maduro by just 235,000 votes compared to some 2m that was his margin of defeat to Mr Chavez.
“If I win by one vote I win, if I lose by one vote, I lose,” Mr Maduro told his supporters defiantly as celebratory fireworks exploded over Caracas, however the result was a poor reflection on his campaign which had dwelled almost exclusively on the memory and legacy of Hugo Chavez.
Mr Maduro now takes power, vowing to continue the great “Bolivarian Revolution” even as the economy starts to show visible strain as a result of Mr Chavez’s 14 years of petro-dollar “socialism” that has splurged cash on the poor at the expense of long-term investment.
“We don’t want violence, we want peace,” Mr Maduro added in a long, rambling speech delivered in front of the mausoleum where Hugo Chavez is buried, “They (the opposition) want an audit, we welcome the audit … I formally request the National Electoral Commission to carry out an audit.”
Venezuela’s election authority said the results were “uncontestable”, but Vicente Díaz, the National Electoral Council director, said there would be a full audit of the vote, which is conducted with electronic machines, with each voter submitted to an electronic finger-print scan.
“Given the close electoral result and the fact that we live in a polarized country, I would like to request that 100% of the ballot boxes are audited,” he said. Under the constitution, the result can be subject to a referendum in two years’ time.
The results, announced shortly after 11pm local time, came after a night of tit-for-tat accusations from both sides as they waited fretfully for the final numbers to be formally announced.
Soon after polls, closed tensions flared when the Maduro campaign leaders hinted they had secured victory and encouraged supporters to gather at the presidential palace where Hugo Chavez’s supporters had traditional gathered to celebrate the late president’s victories.
The move infuriated the opposition who accused the ruling ‘Chavistas’ of trying to steal the election. “They are misleading their people and are trying to mislead the people of this country,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a Capriles campaign coordinator.
Earlier in the evening, also before results were formally declared, Mr Capriles had accused the ruling Socialist Party of plotting to alter the result of the election in a cryptic message sent out on Twitter.
“We alert the country and the world of the intention to try and change the will expressed by the people,” he said, without giving further details.
The allegation by Mr Capriles was only the latest in a litany of complaints against the ruling Socialist Party, which he accused of shamelessly abusing its power in order to ensure the election favours former president Hugo Chavez’s designated heir.
He accused Mr Maduro of “abusing power, abusing state resources” by appearing on television lavishing praise on the late president over the weekend, even though officially campaigning should have stopped.
Venezuela’s national election commission had “turned a blind eye” to the violations, he added, following earlier allegations that the ruling party had unfairly used vast amounts of government money, labour and other resources to win the vote.
As people queued to vote in the pro-Chavez district of Patare in Caracas yesterday cries of “Comandante! Comandante!” filled the street – again breaking rules against campaigning on election day – but without intervention from watching election supervisors.
Mr Maduro’s supporters rejected all the allegations, accusing Mr Capriles of being irresponsible and risking provoking violence and unrest in the tense hours before the result were finally declared.
“For a few days the ‘anti-Chavistas’ have been trying to create an absurd notion of fraud in an automated voting system, one that is recognized in the whole world as secure, trustworthy and transparent,” said Jorge Rodriguez, campaign chief for Mr Maduro.
David Smilde at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank predicted the victory would prove pyrrhic and leave Mr Maduro extremely vulnerable.
“It will make people in his coalition think that perhaps he is not the one to lead the revolution forward,” Mr Smilde said.
Courtesy The Telegraph
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