Divided Venezuela awaits recount decision

Venezuela's acting President Nicolas Maduro began the post-Hugo Chavez era under pressure Monday after the opposition demanded a recount of his slim victory in a vote to succeed the late leader.

Accustomed to seeing Chavez dominate elections, the divided nation awaited whether election authorities would agree to check the result after opposition leader Henrique Capriles defied all expectations by losing by just 235,000 votes.

Around the world, Chavez's closest allies -- from Cuba to Ecuador and Russia -- congratulated their friend's political heir, one month after Chavez lost his battle to cancer aged 58.

Riding a wave of grief over his mentor's death, Maduro had led opinion polls by double digits, but Capriles ran an energetic campaign that tapped into deep discontent over rampant crime and economic weakness.

"The loser is you," Capriles told a news conference early Monday, referring to Maduro, adding: "We won't recognize the result until every vote has been counted."

Capriles -- who had accepted defeat when Chavez beat him by 11 points in October polls -- held up a list of some 3,200 "incidents" that took place during the vote.

Both candidates had pledged during the campaign to recognize the result.

The acting president called his "fair, legal, constitutional" victory, but he said he was open to an audit of the vote.

"Mission accomplished Comandante Chavez. The people fulfilled its pledge," Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who rose to foreign minister and vice president, told cheering supporters at the Miraflores presidential palace.

Before dying, Chavez had urged Venezuelans to vote for Maduro if he was unable to return to power. During the campaign, people chanted "Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro," but enthusiasm appeared to have waned at the 11th hour.

The National Electoral Council (CNE) said the "irreversible" result gave Maduro a victory with 50.7 percent of the vote compared to 49.1 for Capriles.

Venezuela uses electronic voting machines that dispense a backup paper ballot that voters slip into a box. The opposition wants those votes to be counted "one by one."

At a newspaper stand in the capital's business district of Chacao, known as a Capriles stronghold, supporters of the 40-year-old state governor said they wanted a recount.

"We want a review of the vote so that we can move forward, so that we are clear whether we lost," said 56-year-old public accountant Oswaldo Gomez. "People voted for a dead guy, not that incompetent."

"The house of cards will come falling. The truth will come to light," said the kiosk's manager, Maria Rodriguez, 48. "He's no Chavez. He doesn't have the leadership that Chavez had. He won't last a year."

Under the constitution, a recall referendum can be called after the third year of a presidency if 20 percent of voters' signatures are gathered.

Across town, in Caracas' historic center, Maduro supporters said the opposition must accept defeat.

"The numbers don't lie. The little bourgeois should recognize the result given by the CNE," said Nahem Machado, a 41-year-old construction worker. "The president now is Maduro to continue the comandante's legacy."

Ignacio Avalos, a sociology professor at Central University of Venezuela, said the oil-rich nation was in a "very delicate situation."

"Such a thin difference in a country that is so extremely polarized is hard to deal with politically," Avalos said. "The big challenge, however this finishes, is how to become one country again, with its conflicts and contradictions."

Maduro inherited Chavez's formidable electoral machinery, which helped the late leader win successive elections in 14 years, with government employees often seen handing out campaign pamphlets and attending rallies in groups.

The burly, mustachioed leader vowed to continue the oil-funded policies that cut poverty by almost half to 29 percent through popular health, education and food programs.

But Chavez's self-declared "son" faces a litany of problems: South America's highest murder rate, with 16,000 people killed last year, chronic food shortages, high inflation and recurring power outages.

His victory would be a relief to leftist allies in Latin America and fellow anti-Western regimes beyond, especially communist Cuba, which relies on generous oil shipments from Venezuela to keep its economy afloat.

"Latin America is winning on the basis of the conscience of its people, and election results are respected here," said Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Cuban leader Raul Castro said his ally's victory "shows the strength of the ideas and work of Comandante Hugo Chavez."