Maduro victory will stand despite audit: election official

A top election official warned the opposition Saturday against raising "false expectations" over an audit of Venezuela's presidential election, saying it cannot overturn President Nicolas Maduro's win.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles accepted the expanded audit in lieu of a vote-by-vote recount on the eve of Maduro's swearing-in Friday, helping to ease tensions that had led to eight deaths in post-election protests.

Capriles on Saturday said his campaign, which announced it had formed a team to act as witnesses to the audit, was preparing for a protracted challenge to the results of the April 14 elections but expressed confidence that the truth would prevail.

But Sandra Oblitas, the vice president of the National Election Council, told a press conference the audit could not change the outcome of the election, and the result could only be challenged before the Supreme Court.

"It is not the audit that is going to produce a different result," she said.

Oblitas urged the opposition "not to create false expectations over what is a technical audit that has been done before and that in no way overturns electoral results."

She said that the review, which is to take 30 days, would involve comparisons of paper receipts of electronic votes casts with the electronic tallies, while Capriles and his aides indicated they would be seeking other voting records as well.

The latest turn came amid a contentious start to the new administration, with the opposition accusing the government of mass arrests of protesters around the country and harassing public employees suspected of voting for Capriles.

Maduro, who replaced the late Hugo Chavez, had said he was ready for dialogue with the opposition but coupled that with warnings he would take a "hard line" against those promoting a coup d'etat.

"I'll always be open to dialogue, but not with a gun to the head or on the basis of blackmail, nor threats and intimidation," Capriles told reporters in his first substantive response to Maduro's inaugural address Friday.

The opposition charged that 242 people have been arrested since Monday for banging pots and pans in nightly protests against official election results that gave Maduro a victory by 1.8 per cent over Capriles.

"All these people detained across the length and breadth of the country committed the crime, according to the government, of illicit possession of pots," said Delsa Solorzano, a deputy to the Latin American parliament.

Solorzano said about 100 government workers had complained of harassment in the workplace because of suspicions they had not voted for Maduro.

"The persecution of the public employees... is in keeping with fascist governments," said Capriles, who cited reports the government had begun monitoring cellphone and social network accounts in an bid to identify disloyal workers.

State-run television has run extensive coverage of speeches by ruling party officials at funeral services for the victims of post-election violence, blaming the opposition for the deaths.

Despite the deepening divisions within the country, Maduro has vowed to continue and build on Chavez's self-styled "socialist revolution" and accused the opposition at every opportunity of seeking a coup.

On Saturday, the new president visited Chavez's tomb separately with Cuba's President Raul Castro and Argentine President Cristina Kirchner to pay respects to the late leader, who died of cancer March 5 after 14 years in power.

Although the official returns show Maduro won the elections, they also showed that hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters defected to vote for the opposition, a significant slippage for a leftist movement that under Chavez had become accustomed to easy election wins.

The loss of support confronts Maduro with a dilemma over how to shore up his base while dealing with an emboldened opposition and a debt-burdened economy in decline despite Venezuela's oil riches.

Soaring inflation, a weak currency, shortages of basic necessities, and fiscal constraints are a growing challenge to the costly social programs that were among Chavez's signature achievements.

Ensuring the loyalty of the military also could be tricky for Maduro, who has never served in uniform and must contend with an officer corps that has played key political roles under Chavez, a former coup leader who was himself briefly ousted from power.