Audit demanded in Venezuelan vote for new president

| Apr. 15, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

Supporters of presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, who failed again to overturn 14 years of socialist rule here, said Monday that their candidate was cheated out of the office.

"It's fraud," said Mariusca Montes, 21, who voted in Sunday's election to select a successor to Hugo Chávez, the anti-American socialist leader who died March 5. "I have no confidence in the electoral council; they're entirely in the pockets of the government."

Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's vice president handpicked to succeed him, won Sunday's election by less than 2 percentage points, or a margin of about 235,000 votes out of 14.8 million cast, according to the state's election commission.

With such a small margin between the candidates, Maduro likely will have to work hard to maintain his leadership.

"The ability to govern is so fragile with this result," said Luis Vicente León, the head of Caracas polling firm Datanálisis.

Even a high-level Chavista leader suggested the dismal election performance could mean a rethinking of the "Chavismo." National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a rival of Maduro's, tweeted: "The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism."

Montes and others felt sure that Capriles had ended Chávez's left-wing Bolivarian Revolution, which has left Venezuela with high unemployment, soaring inflation, food shortages and falling petroleum production in a country that has the highest proven oil reserves in the world.

Capriles lost to Chávez in an election in October and accepted the results. But on Monday he demanded a recount and said Maduro is not the legitimate president.

"The people don't love you," said Capriles to his opponent in a televised address just after the results were announced. "We won't recognize a result until every vote has been counted. ... If you were illegitimate before," he said, directed at Maduro, "now you are even more so."

The Obama administration in Washington also called for an audit of the results. Venezuela's electronic voting system is completely digital, but generates a paper receipt for each vote, making a vote-by-vote recount possible.

"This appears an important, prudent and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "Rushing to a decision in these circumstances would be inconsistent with the expectations of Venezuelans for a clear and democratic outcome."

Capriles and others say the country's electoral council is biased toward the government, which denies opposition candidates full access to state media for advertising or coverage of their campaigns. Maduro, however, said that he is open to a recount.

Maduro, a former bus driver who supported Chávez for years, won a six-year term Sunday and told a crowd outside the presidential palace that his victory showed that Chávez "continues to be invincible."

Capriles, an athletic 40-year-old state governor, criticized Maduro throughout the campaign as a poor imitation of Chávez. Capriles vowed to end cronyism in the oil industry that Chávez took over and stacked with supporters, many of whom are not considered qualified for their jobs. He promised to end generous subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela to Cuba, a communist dictatorship that Chávez saw as a model.

Chávez was beloved by millions of Venezuelans who received sporadic government benefits such as health clinics and housing. But Capriles and others charge that Chávez has plundered much of the $1 trillion in oil revenues during his 14-year rule. Venezuelans are subjected to chronic power outages, crumbling infrastructure, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages under a state-controlled economy. Crime is rampant. Venezuela has one of the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates. Venezuela's$30 billion fiscal deficit is equal to about 10% of the country's gross domestic product.

Before the results were even announced yesterday, Capriles had alleged fraud on his Twitter account, talking of an attempt to "change the will of the people." Today on the social network, he added that the country had an "illegitimate president" that he would "denounce to the world."