Nicolás Maduro narrowly wins Venezuelan presidential election

Election commission says result by margin of 1.6 percentage points is irreversible, after opposition demands for recount

Nicolás Maduro is set to be proclaimed president of Venezuela, despite opposition demands for a recount after the closest vote in the country's recent history.

Sunday's ballot gave Maduro – the political heir of Hugo Chávez – a victory margin of 1.6 percentage points, according to the National Electoral Council. His pro-business challenger, Henrique Capriles, said the result might have been manipulated and insisted on a vote-by-vote audit.

Maduro initially appeared to accept his demand. On Monday, however, the commission – which is skewed towards the ruling camp – said the result was irreversible and the proclamation ceremony would take place later in the day. An inauguration is set for 19 April.

With no sign of a recount taking place, the decision sparked outrage among opposition supporters. Student groups called for protests outside the commission.

Ruling-camp officials said the allegations of electoral impropriety were part of a US-sponsored plot to destabilise the country and undermine the legitimacy of its elected leader.

Flanked by his wife, son and government officials outside the presidential palace after his victory was announced, Maduro, 50, proclaimed a new era in the Bolivarian revolution begun by his predecessor and said his victory was further proof that Chávez "continues to be invincible, that he continues to win battles".

The former bus driver and trade union negotiator said he was the target of a "dirty war". "There is an international operation to attack Venezuelan democracy," he said. "I will show no weakness against those who meddle with this country's sovereignty."

Chávistas in central Caracas launched fireworks and honked their car horns in celebration, but the tiny margin of victory shocked many Maduro aides, who had been expecting the double-digit triumph predicted by most polls up until a week ago.

Capriles has refused to accept the outcome of what he has described as an illegitimate process. In a speech to supporters, the 40-year-old called on the president-elect to review the result. "You and your government are the big losers of this process," he said. "We will not recognise the results until every single vote is counted one by one … Every box, every vote must be counted."

No proof of the supposed irregularities has been offered. Outside observers have previously declared Venezuela's voting system, which incorporates both an electronic ballot and a hard copy, to be among the best in the world.

Maduro won with 7,505,338 votes, or 50.66% of the poll, with Capriles a short distance behind on 7,270,403 votes, or 49.07%. This was considerably below the 12 percentage point winning margin attained by Chávez in October, underlining the difficulty the new president faces in living up to the reputation of his charismatic predecessor.

Questions are already being asked within the ruling camp about the loss of 670,000 votes since the last presidential election six months ago, when Chávez beat Capriles by double digits. The national assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, who many consider Maduro's main rival within the movement, tweeted: "The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism."

Jackson Gonzalez was among those who switched sides between the presidential elections. He said the country's new leader lacked the qualities and charisma needed to deal with problems such as rising crime. "I have always voted for Chávez, but Maduro is not Chávez. Chávez could execute a plan but after he died I felt we needed a change," said the 28-year-old. "A lot of the things Maduro did were a bad imitation of the commander and it felt wrong."

Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College, said the slim mandate would complicate Maduro's ability to deal with three key challenges: a troubled economy, a resurgent opposition and maintaining party loyalty. "Maduro will have to preserve the electoral coalition within chavismo, which consists of an alliance between the more radical sectors of a civilian left with military sectors", Corrales said.

Chávez's death from cancer in March sparked the race for a successor. In his last address to the nation before undergoing emergency surgery, Chávez urged Venezuelans to vote for Maduro, his foreign minister, if he failed to recover.


Virginia Lopez in Caracas and Jonathan Watts

The GuardianTramp

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