CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s government on Monday defended a presidential election that authorities said gave interim President Nicolas Maduro a six-year term, backtracking on a pledge he had made to permit an audit of ballots demanded by the opposition following the razor-thin victory.
Henrique Capriles, who had challenged Maduro in a Sunday election six weeks after President Hugo Chávez’s death to decide who would rule this oil-rich country, insisted that he had won the vote and called for a hand count of all the paper ballots.
Maduro, though, was proclaimed the winner Monday at the National Electoral Council, which certified the victory in a ceremony broadcast on national television, paving the way for his inauguration on Friday.
“There is no doubt here about who won the election,” Elias Jaua, the foreign minister and a former vice president, said in a speech in which he defended the win and characterized the country’s electoral system as the best in the world. “Venezuelans, let’s feel proud of yesterday’s vote.”
Soon after Maduro’s victory was announced late Sunday night, Vicente Díaz, one of the rectors of the electoral council, called for an audit of the vote.
Minutes later, as Maduro spoke to a crowd of supporters outside the presidential palace, he announced, “We’re going to do it.”
“We’re not afraid – let the boxes talk,” said Maduro, 50, referring to the cardboard boxes that hold ballots. “That the truth be told.”
But by Monday morning, the potent state media apparatus here played one interview after another of observers and politicians praising Venezuela’s automated voting system.
And the electoral council – which is made up of five members, four of them allies of the government – made clear that it would not support a recount.
“The Venezuelan electoral system worked perfectly,” said Tibisay Lucena, president of the council. “Venezuela is the country in the Americas with the most lively and vibrant democracy.”
On Monday, though, Capriles declined to concede and cited 3,200 irregularities on the day of the vote, as well as the use of Venezuela’s well-worn electoral machine to get the vote out for Maduro.
He said his campaign had asked electoral authorities not to proclaim Maduro the winner until the hand count of the ballots could take place. Capriles, 40, a governor and lawyer, said that the opposition’s own estimates of the vote showed he had secured narrow victory over Maduro.
“Here the fight is not against the people,” he said. “It’s a fight of the people against an illegitimate government.”
He called on Venezuelans nationwide to bang pots and pans in protest – a popular form of expressing anger with authorities. Capriles said if authorities did not respond to the opposition’s requests, then Venezuelans should protest on Tuesday in front of the electoral council.
He said, however, that his supporters should not resort to violence.
“I don’t want there to be any problems in the streets of Venezuela,” he said.
The dispute came a day after Maduro was expected to win a resounding victory.
The former union activist turned vice president had the sympathy vote after Chávez died following a long battle with cancer, and some pollsters put Maduro’s pre-vote lead in double digits.
But the margin of victory was under 2 percentage points, just six months after Chávez beat Capriles by 11 percentage points to win his third reelection. Maduro won, the electoral council said, by more than 260,000 votes.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney called Capriles’s request for an audit of votes an “important, prudent, and necessary step” to ensure that Venezuelans have trust in the election results. And the Washington-based Organization of American States offered Venezuela election monitors to help with a possible audit.
The Venezuelan government angrily rejected such calls as meddling in internal affairs, with officials here instead touting the congratulatory wishes that came from allies, among them Russia, Argentina and Cuba.
Still, the narrow margin was a letdown for many in the government, whose leadership had been predicting a landslide, arguing that a vast majority of Venezuelans supported Chávez’s radical transformation of Venezuela into a socialist state. It means that Maduro will begin his term without the mandate that his boss enjoyed.
“Teflon was limited to Chávez,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group. “The sympathy for Chávez proved more fleeting than expected. In the end, absent charisma, issues mattered. So do campaigns. Capriles proves adept in taking advantage of a weak opponent and a nation that Chávez left in sorry shape.”
Indeed, it appeared that even in the high echelons of the Chavista ranks there was at least one powerful official who was troubled by the margin of victory. Diosdado Cabello, a former military man with close ties to rich executives who have lucrative state contracts, said that “the results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism.”
The comment was significant because Cabello is considered by analysts and politicians here as Maduro’s rival. And his ties to powerful generals in the military are at sharp odds with the alliances Maduro has with social groups and the Cuban government, with whom he has close relations.
“He has the type of background that the military doesn’t always appreciate,” said Javier Corrales, an Amherst College expert on Venezuela. “Some people say that the military never loved the ties to Cuba, and Maduro is very open about his ties to Cuba.”
Corrales said that Maduro does not appear to have the abilities that Chávez used to hold together a disparate coalition that makes up Chavismo, from the military to radical Marxists, business executives with hefty government contracts to armed groups in the slums to the masses of poor.
“The Chavistas, especially in the leadership, are going to say you’re having trouble maintaining the coalition,” Corrales said, referring to what some government leaders may say to Maduro. “Chávez, to his credit, was able to put together the most successful coalition between radical leftists to the military.”
By Tuesday morning, government officials were reporting seven deaths, 61 injured and 135 arrested around the country.
Maduro, blaming “fascist mobs” for the violence and reiterating charges that the opposition was fomenting a coup, said he would not allow his foes to go ahead with a planned protest march Wednesday through the streets of Caracas.
Capriles urged the government to open a dialogue after the outcome of the vote. “We are ready to open a dialogue with the government so that the crisis can be ended in the coming hours,” Capriles said, addressing his remarks to acting President Nicolás Maduro’s government.
“As of now, I have not heard from Mr Maduro any solution for the problem the country is going through … an idea to get out of this crisis,” Capriles said in a press conference with local and international media.
Updated at 4:25 p.m. on Tuesday
Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this story. | AFP also contributed
© The Washington Post, 2013