Opposition calls for election protests in Venezuela

As Nicolás Maduro was declared the winner of Sunday’s tight and contested presidential vote, thousands of opposition marchers paralyzed parts of the capital Monday chanting “fraud!” and demanding a recount.

In a ceremony in central Caracas, the National Electoral Council, or CNE, declared Maduro the winner of the race. But his rival, Henrique Capriles, maintained the vote was flawed and that to assume the presidency without a full recount made him illegitimate.

“This crisis can be resolved counting vote by vote,” Capriles said.

He’s called on supporters to march on regional CNE offices on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Capriles said he would lead protesters to the national office to present a list of 3,200 voting irregularities and campaign violations that he said skewed the election.

Authorities said Maduro won 51 percent of the vote to Capriles’ 49 percent, and beat his rival in 16 out of 24 states, including the capital. But with 99.1 percent of the vote counted, Maduro’s advantage was less than 240,000 votes.

While both sides agreed to a full audit Sunday night, CNE President Tibisay Lucena suggested Monday that would not be forthcoming. She said 54 percent of the vote had been automatically audited, which would be considered “excessive” in any other country. Once he was declared the victor, Maduro also said there was no need for a complete recount.

As the ceremony was taking place, several thousand people gathered in Plaza Francia, a longtime opposition stronghold, chanting “the government is going to fall,” and burning Maduro campaign posters.

“They committed fraud,” said Nerquis Alfonso, 45, a pharmacist, as she banged on a pot with a spoon. “And the CNE is full of [government supporters]. There’s no one who can guarantee us that our vote was respected.”

The banging of pots in protest, known here as a cacerolazo, went on for more than an hour in parts of the city.

In central Caracas, Maduro supporters said the opposition was acting in bad faith and trying to generate violence.

Guillermo Gimon, 62, said that other presidents had won by smaller margins before, and that Capriles had secured his governors’ seat in December by just three points over his pro-Chávez rival.

“It’s like they’re trying to spark violence or a coup,” he said. “They have to listen to the will of the people.”

As he spoke to crowds after the ceremony, Maduro called on the opposition to admit it had lost and warned against trying to take power through force.

“If you want to try to oust us through a coup, the people and the armed forces will be waiting for you,” he said. “But what we want is peace.”

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 transparent

Voting booths closed in “complete” normalcy and voting data was transferred to the CNE headquarters without any “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 for the opposition have echoed claims that the playing field was uneven and Maduro used state resources to promote his candidacy.

“After what we lived through and saw yesterday — all the complicated and delicate situations that we witnessed — we cannot say, objectively and categorically, that this was a clean and purely democratic process,’’ said Gustavo Palomares, president of the Institute of Higher European Studies.

The Organization of American States also called for a recount.

While the results are being questioned, recognition came in from around the globe. China, Russia, Argentina, Ecuador and Cuba were among the nations to congratulate their Venezuelan ally.

Cuban leader Raúl Castro called Maduro’s victory “transcendental” and said it 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.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday said the Venezuelan people deserve congratulations “for their peaceful and orderly participation in this electoral process.”

But he added that, given the closeness of the results and the call for an audit, it’s an “important, prudent, and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results.”

The recount, if it happens, and the fraud allegations could keep this nation on tenterhooks for weeks, analysts said.

“Maduro could begin his presidency with some serious legitimacy issues and under the shadow of suspected fraud,” said Oswaldo Ramírez with Caracas’ ORC political consulting firm.

The Texas based political research firm, Stratfor, said that if Capriles does not accept the results of the recount, “Venezuela could be in for a long and drawn-out public battle, which could result in civil unrest.”

The tight race was a rude shock for the administration. President Hugo Chávez had defeated Capriles by 11 percentage points just six months ago, and Maduro went into the race leading in many polls by double digits.

The loss of that much political capital in so short a time could generate internal frictions within the ruling PSUV party, Ramirez said.

“He’s going to have to be radical to try to prove that he’s got a strong hand and power when, electorally, he’s weak,” Ramirez said.

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.

Jamila Contreras, a 38-year-old Maduro supporter blamed the media and a “lying” opposition for the tight race.

“They said so many bad things about him,” she said, “but now they just need to let him govern. He’s our president.”

Related stories from Miami Herald