Hugo Chávez proved his power from beyond the grave, as his handpicked successor narrowly won office in a contested vote that many saw as a tribute to the fallen socialist firebrand.
Nicolás Maduro, 50, a long-time ally of the late president, narrowly edged out rival Henrique Capriles in a race that will be contested.
On Monday the opposition continued its call for a full audit of the tight vote, and the government continued to celebrate the victory and accept congratulations.
The National Electoral Council said Maduro had won in 16 out of 24 states, including the capital. But with 99.1 percent of the vote counted he had an advantage of less than 240,000 votes.
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Capriles is demanding a full-recount, which Maduro has accepted, and said his camp has collected more than 3,200 reports of problems and campaign violations that could have swayed the vote.
On Monday, the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations, one of the international groups invited to follow the election, said the vote was peaceful and took place without problems.
Voting booths closed in “complete” normalcy and the data was transmitted without “problems,” said organization President Roberto Rosario.
Now the political leadership “has to accept these results with responsibility,” he said.
The Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, also said Sunday's election was free and fair.
While Venezuela does not allow election observers, it does allow “accompaniers” who oversee the vote. Some independent witnesses have echoed opposition claims about the uneven playing field and Maduro’s use of state resources to promote his candidacy.
While the results are being questioned here, congratulations have come in from China, Russia, Argentina and Cuba.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro congratulated Maduro for his “transcendental victory,” which he said proved the “power of the ideas and the work of Commander Hugo Chávez.”
Venezuela is Cuba’s most important financial backer and sends the island almost 100,000 barrels of oil a day.
Capriles said his camp had counted 3,200 campaign violations during the day and that his internal count proves he won. He demanded a complete recount.
“The people have expressed themselves but the results do not reflect the reality of the country,” he said. “Mr. Maduro, if you were an illegitimate leader before this process you are even less legitimate now. . . . The big loser today is you and what you represent.”
Maduro said presidents in the United States and Mexico had won by narrower margins and were allowed to govern in peace.
But the tight race was a rude shock for the administration. Chávez had defeated Capriles by 11 percentage points just six months ago, and Maduro went into the race leading many polls by double digits.
Maduro said his campaign had been the victim of a “psychological war” and shadowy mercenaries who were trying to spark violence and sabotage the electrical system. He also said it was the first vote in 14 years that took place without “father” Chávez.
“Now his son is going to be president of the republic and will prove what he’s capable of,” Maduro said. “We are going to build a new and powerful majority.”
He also warned the opposition against trying to take power through a coup. “If they do try it, we’ll know how to respond,” he said.
The opposition had been complaining of irregularities all day. And as polls began closing late Sunday, Capriles posted on Twitter that the administration was “trying to change the will of the people.”
As the results were announced, Capriles supporters shouted, “Fraud!”
“I don’t believe this,” said Betty Weber, 60, with tears in her eyes. “Everyone knew we were winning. They’re just playing the same game as always.”
Maduro, 50, takes the helm of a deeply divided nation plagued by violence, and struggling under record inflation, power outages and food shortages. Maduro has vowed to make crime and the economy his two top priorities, but offered few olive branches to the administration’s traditional “enemies.”
Asked whether he would seek reconciliation with the opposition, Maduro said his administration is always open to dialogue but not “pacts with the right wing.”
He also said there could be no rapprochement with the United States until Washington “respects” Venezuela. In March, the government expelled two U.S. diplomats it accused of “conspiring” with members of the armed forces. On Sunday, Maduro said his government would offer additional details about U.S. meddling here.
“We will never accept it,” he said of U.S. interference. “While I am president and the revolution is governing we will not allow any empire to humiliate us.”
The loss was a serious blow to an opposition that has been defeated in three back-to-back races.
After Capriles lost to Chávez in October, ruling-party allies swept 20 out of 23 governors races in December.
Before the results were announced, Luís Vicente León, with the Datanalisis polling firm, conceded that Capriles’ second loss in six months might leave him “forgotten, destroyed and pulverized politically,” but he said many opposition supporters understand that the 40-year-old governor was facing an uphill battle.
This race was “seen as an epic sacrifice to represent the opposition and fight for political space no matter how tough,” he said.
Venezuela does not allow electoral observers, but it does invite “accompaniers” to follow the vote.
On Sunday, a delegation with the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations was having photos taken in front a sidewalk shrine to Chávez, where citizens had placed flowers, letters and cups of coffee.
The delegation’s president, Roberto Rosario, said his group had not seen any blatant campaign violations Sunday.
“What we’re seeing is people voting calmly. There’s no sense of confrontation,” he said.
Asked about pro-government propaganda that was in Sunday’s newspapers and on public television, Rosario said it was largely a consequence of the compressed 10-day campaign. The opposition also had thinly veiled ads in some papers, he said.
“There are issues on both sides,” he said. “But when the issues are equal we cannot talk about one side having an advantage.”
Diego Sueiras is the mission chief for Redlad, a network of observer organizations that was denied the right to “accompany” Sunday’s vote. Sueiras said the election was deeply flawed because of the uneven playing field leading up to the vote.
“We’re in a system where democracy doesn’t seem to matter before or during the election,” he said. “All that seems to matter is that they can count the votes.”
When Chávez died last month after an 18-month battle with cancer, it triggered snap elections and a brief but bitter 10-day race. The opposition has accused the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, of hijacking government resources to favor Maduro.
The Capriles campaign said pro-government supporters were rallying around some voting stations and that PSUV activists were accompanying voters to the ballot box, violating their right to a secret vote.
Rosa María Camargo, a 42-year-old accountant, said she had heard reports about pro-Maduro crowds intimidating voters. As she held her 2-year-old son, she broke down in tears.
“I want to have a real country for my son, not this disorder,” she said. “If Maduro wins, it’s going to be because of these abuses.”
Born in Caracas in 1962 to a working-class family, Maduro was a student leftist and a bus driver before becoming a union organizer for Caracas Metro system.
His political journey ultimately led him to a jail cell where Chávez, a young military officer, was being held after trying to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. Maduro and his longtime partner, Cilia Flores, now the attorney general, worked to win Chávez’s release.
Maduro helped write the 1999 constitution and became the head of the National Assembly. But he became an international figure in 2006, when Chávez plucked him from the job to become foreign minister. He held that job until October, when the ailing Chávez made him his vice president.
On Sunday, Maduro said he was going to visit the hilltop gravesite of his hero.
“Commander,” Maduro said. “Mission accomplished.”
Miami Herald Special Correspondent Andrew Rosati Contributed to this report.