CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — 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 on Monday demanded a recount, portending more uncertainty 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, who won a six-year term, told a crowd outside the presidential palace that his victory was further proof that Chavez “continues to be invincible.”
But analysts called the unexpectedly slim margin a disaster for Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver who is believed to have close ties to Cuba. He faces enormous economic challenges, as well as the task of holding together a movement built around the magnetism of the now-departed Chavez.
The nation appeared largely calm on Monday despite the tight, contested end to an often ugly, mudslinging campaign.
Challenger Henrique Capriles and Maduro both 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.
Capriles, an athletic 40-year-old state governor, had mocked and belittled Maduro throughout the campaign as a poor, bland imitation of Chavez. As it ended, he said his campaign had evidence that the official results were wrong: “It is the government that has been defeated.”
“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.
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.
Castro issued a statement congratulating Maduro for “this transcendental triumph,” but on Havana streets, Cubans were still worried.
“The difference in votes is very small, and I think that it will be very hard for Maduro to govern. For us in Cuba, well, I’m very pessimistic. I think it will be a debacle,” said Maite Romero, a 74-year-old retiree.
Maduro, a longtime foreign minister to Chavez, had counted on a wave of sympathy 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. Maduro also enjoyed the backing of state media as part of the government’s near-monopoly on institutional power.
Only one opposition TV station remains and it was being sold to a new owner Monday.
Capriles’ main campaign weapon was to simply emphasize “the incompetence of the state.” At rallies, Capriles would read out a list of unfinished road, bridge and rail projects. Then he asked people what goods were scarce on store shelves.
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 14-year rule.
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 disappeared to Cuba in December for what would be his final surgery.
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.
“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.”
Still, Maduro has may have time to strengthen his presidency, which Chavez made the most powerful branch of government. The ruling socialist party controls the National Assembly, and legislative elections will not take place for another two years. The opposition’s main legal tool for ousting Maduro before his six-year term is a possible recall referendum, but that cannot take place until midway through his six-year-term.
Maduro will face no end of hard choices, but Corrales, of Amherst 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 other than taking a tough line against his adversaries.”
Venezuela’s $30 billion fiscal deficit is equal to about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Many factories operate at half capacity because strict currency controls make it hard for them to pay for imported parts and materials. Business leaders say some companies verge on bankruptcy because they cannot extend lines of credit with foreign suppliers.
Chavez imposed currency controls a decade ago trying to stem capital flight as his government expropriated large land parcels and dozens of businesses.
Now, dollars sell on the black market at three times the official exchange rate and Maduro has had to devalue Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, twice this year.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez, Jorge Rueda, E. Eduardo Castillo and Christopher Toothaker in Caracas and Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.
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