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Venezuela vote: Chavez's heir Maduro scrapes by amid rigging allegation

Hugo Chavez's chosen heir Nicolas Maduro musters much lower-than-expected 50.66 percent of the vote as Henrique Capriles alleges vote rigging.

Maduro venezuela election 2013 04 14Enlarge
Nicolas Maduro waves to followers after casting his vote in Caracas on April 14. Venezuelans flocked to the polls Sunday to vote for Hugo Chavez's successor. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Acting President Nicolas Maduro managed to muster 50.66 percent of the vote over challenger Henrique Capriles' 49.07 percent, in a much tighter-than-expected presidential election Sunday.

"Today we can say that we had a fair electoral triumph," said Maduro, 50, after the results were announced.

About 78 percent of Venezuela's nearly 19 million eligible voters cast ballots Sunday, The New York Times reported.

After election authorities announced the result, Maduro's supporters celebrated outside Miraflores presidential palace, although the party drew nowhere near as large a crowd as past socialist victories.

Fireworks burst overhead as songs blared and booze flowed. Many revelers wore fake mustaches, playfully mimicking the mustachioed Maduro.

But while the "Chavistas" partied, opposition candidate Capriles cried foul. He said he refused to accept the results and called for a recount.

"Today's loser is you," Capriles told a news conference, referring to Maduro, according to Agence France-Presse. "We won't recognize a result until every vote has been counted."

The end of Venezuela's election day showed a country more divided than ever during the emotionally charged aftermath following Chavez's death from cancer.

Caracas pollster Luis Vicente Leon said he expects "negotiation or conflict" after a such a close race.

"The ability to govern is so fragile with this result," he said.

Earlier Sunday evening, as polls were closing, Capriles had decried an alleged plot to alter the result.

"We alert the country and the world of the intention to change the choice expressed by the people," Capriles, 40, tweeted late Sunday.

To the recount demand, according to the website of Spain's El Pais, Maduro replied, "I welcome any audit you want to do. The ones most interested in an audit are the dishonest ones."

The opposition group had set up several phone lines for voters to call in with information about voting conditions at their station.

Hand-picked by the beloved Chavez before his death last month, Maduro had commanded double-digit percentage points ahead of Capriles in most polls.

But that lead started slipping as Capriles went on the offensive, with ample ammunition of the country's dire reality.

Despite the government's largesse — using the world's biggest crude reserves to fund poverty-fighting programs at home and provide cheap oil to regional allies like Cuba — problems such as high inflation, produce shortages and soaring murder rates continue to cripple the South American country.

"I voted for Capriles, he’s the only option for change," Jose Alberto, a 32-year-old engineer, told GlobalPost after casting his vote in the upscale Caracas district of San Ignacio.

"I’ve never voted for Chavez," he added. "You just have to walk down the street to realize that this country doesn’t work."

Still, many Venezuelans would not give up on "Chavismo," their late leader's self-styled movement dubbed "21st century socialism," and they placed trust in Chavez's faithful deputy, Maduro, to move it forward.

Mario Izarra, 33, showed up at the Sierra Maestra voting station in 23 de Enero‬ slum at 8 p.m. the night before the vote, and finally voted Sunday morning at 6 a.m.

"We need to work hard to make sure everyone votes, but Maduro will win, I'm
sure," he said, standing opposite a giant mural of leftist revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"Capriles simply doesn't have the same popularity that Maduro has and Chavez had," he added.

Whatever the final verdict, there's no question that Capriles, governor of the country's second-largest state Miranda, made huge gains this time around. In October, he lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points, the closest any opponent had come to unseating "el Comandante" in his 14-year rule.

The stakes were high. Many commentators said Capriles was running not just acting President Maduro but the ghost of Chavez, who anointed Maduro his successor in December before he died.

Then Maduro exalted his deceased mentor to new heights of Godliness: He called Chavez "prophet of Christ," and himself his "apostle."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/venezuela/130414/venezuelans-go-polls-presidential-election