President Hugo Chávez — one of Latin America’s most controversial and charismatic leaders — won a hotly contested presidential election Sunday, allowing him to deepen his “21st Century Socialism” in the oil-rich nation through 2019.
With 90 percent of the vote counted, Chávez won 54.4 percent of the vote while former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, his main rival, received 44.9 percent, according to partial tallies announced late Sunday by the National Electoral Council or CNE.
As the results were announced, the skies over Caracas lit up with red fireworks and crowds began to gather at the Miraflores presidential palace. Wearing a red shirt and jacket, Chávez led the masses in a rendition of the national anthem and thanked the voters for going to the polls without stirring up violence. He also congratulated the opposition for pledging to abide by the results.
“It was a perfect battle,” he said of his campaign. “It was a democratic battle.”
The vote was a civic victory for the country, as 81 percent of its 19 million registered voters went to the polls. Despite fears that the incendiary rhetoric that marked the race might spill over into election day, voting was largely peaceful.
Chávez, 58, has been in power since 1999 and used the nation’s vast oil wealth to promote socialist reforms and welfare programs that have made him a hero to the poor. He’s vowed to use the additional six years to build more public housing, end unemployment and create 10 new public universities.
Capriles, 40, had pledged to roll out Brazilian-style reforms that would jump-start the economy without leaving the poor behind. His calls for political reconciliation as he barnstormed the nation struck a chord in this divided country.
In his concession speech, Capriles congratulated the president and thanked the 6 million people who voted for him. He also said he would keep working for the country.
“I hope he [Chávez] understands the message of the people,” he said. “We are in a country that has two visions. And to be a good president, you have to work for all Venezuelans.”
Capriles said he didn’t intend to contest the outcome.
Venezuela hasn’t invited international observers to watch its elections since 2006, although it does allow “witnesses” to the process. Even so, neither campaign raised alarms throughout the day and the local watchdog group, the Venezuelan Election Observer, said its “general impression was that the election process has been normal and tranquil.”
Chávez’s victory lap is likely to be short-lived as speculation is bound to re-focus on the undisclosed form of cancer that he claims to have beaten earlier this year but seemed to dampen his campaigning.
Asked on Sunday if he had any succession plans, Chávez dodged the question.
“This process no longer depends on Chávez, it’s a collective,” he said.
Earlier, Chávez cast his vote in the working-class 23 de Enero neighborhood surrounded by family, cabinet members and international celebrities, including Hollywood’s Danny Glover and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú of Guatemala.
Minutes later, Capriles cast his vote in the municipality of Baruta, where he was once mayor.
After pushing through a crowd of supporters and showing reporters his “lucky shoes” that had helped him win four consecutives, he vowed to play by the rules.
“What the people say today is a sacred word,” Capriles said. “To know how to win, you also have to know how to lose.”
The words seemed to have a calming effect on a nation that often fretted that either side might not accept defeat. In the waning days of the campaign, Chávez had gone as far as to suggest that his loss might spark a civil war.
Carolina Haskour, 41, was wearing a shirt that read “You snooze you lose” and waiting at the Baruta polling station hoping to catch a glimpse of Capriles.
She said she voted for the former mayor, governor and legislator because she’s tired of the nation’s political polarization and soaring crime rate.
“I want the country to be what it was before,” she said. “There’s so much hate now. I want a country where we don’t fight with each other just because we have different political views.”
But others still see Chávez as the only person willing to fight for them.
“I am 82 years old and I can tell you we’ve never had a president as good as this,” said María Pinzón who lives in Antimano. “He’s made mistakes, but there’s no one else like him.”
On the campaign trail, Chávez highlighted his social programs and presented himself in his motto and jingles as the “heart of the nation.”
If that’s the case, then “I voted for a heart transplant,” said Jorge San Martin, a computer engineer. San Martin said he had to wait three hours due to voting-machine failures in his neighborhood, La Florida.
For many, the day kicked off at 3 a.m. when fireworks began popping over Caracas, followed later by sound-trucks playing reveille. Chávez had ordered supporters to vote early to guarantee his victory and give his organizers time to take stragglers to the polls.
The strategy seems to have worked. At a voting center in Caricuao, a group of Chávez supporters huddled under a red tent and kept a list of everyone in their community who had voted. They said they would go rouse those who didn’t make it to the polls.
“We’re seeing a massive turnout,” said Tania Peña, one of the organizers. “We’re here because we want socialism, equality and all the social missions.”
At the technical school where Chávez cast his vote, the walls were covered in pictures of the young president and Karl Marx. It also has a quote from Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar scrawled on a wall.
“You can lose all of the battles,” it reads, “except for the last one.”