Narrow election victory by Chávez favorite is a win for opposition too

Although interim President Nicolás Maduro won the presidency according to early results, the slimness of his victory margin signals that he will likely face serious challenges.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Opposition supporters protest the official results of the presidential election holding a sign that reads in Spanish 'Maduro, illegitimate, get out CNE. Cheaters!' in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday. Hugo Chávez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, won a razor-thin victory in Sunday's special presidential election but the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles refused to accept the result and demanded a full recount.

Interim President Nicolás Maduro's razor-thin victory stunned Venezuelans on both sides of the country's political divide, sending throngs of his supporters to celebrate in front of Miraflores palace, and leaving his critics crying foul. 

Mr. Maduro, late President Hugo Chávez's chosen successor and heavy favorite, barely beat his opponent Henrique Capriles, causing the challenger to demand a recount. Preliminary results showed Maduro receiving 50.7 percent of the vote to Capriles's 49.1 percent. 

In a fiery speech that followed the results, Capriles cited evidence of more than 3,200 cases of irregularities during the vote, including intimidation and breaching the right to keep votes secret.

"I don't deal with lies and corruption," he said. "Mr. Maduro, if you were illegitimate before, now you are even more loaded with illegitimacy."

Members of the opposition claim that their internal polls show that they won the presidency.

"This is horrible, awful," said Rodrigo Hernandez, a teary-eyed university student in front of Mr. Capriles' campaign headquarters. "Everyone knew we were winning. It was fraud."

Although the country is still waiting on final results, many believe Capriles and the political coalition he represents may actually be picking up steam and gaining ground during politically uncertain times.

Beset with one of the world's highest inflation rates and soaring levels of violence, lacking Chávez's charm and charisma, and facing an emboldened opposition, Maduro must act fast to satisfy his political base, many say. Capriles has picked up some 680,000 new votes since last October.

As a result of the slim victory, "The challenges of Nicolás Maduro are much [more] serious than before," says Oscar Schémel, president of the polling firm Hinterlaces. "[Voters are] not going to be as forgiving as they were with Chávez," Schémel says.

Capriles was considered a long shot after his loss to former President Chávez last October and his coalition’s subsequent defeat in last year's gubernatorial elections, when it lost in 20 out of 23 states. But with a flurry of last minute campaign stops, Capriles managed to shore up greater support than anticipated, decisively narrowing the gap between him and Maduro in the week leading up to the vote. 

"They [the opposition] far out-performed the most objective estimates," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society in Washington.

Capriles' platform has centered on pro-business policies and a promise to crack down on crime, while Mr. Maduro's main push was to preserve the former president's self-declared "socialist revolution."

"[The opposition] can continue hammering on the issue, which is a winner for them: the state of the country," says Mr. Farnsworth. 

With the specifics of a recount just beginning to take shape, and with the political landscape in flux, the only certain thing is a divided country.

"The results of yesterday leave a distinct scenario in the country," says Elsa Cardozo, political scientist at the Central University of Caracas. "It's a country [split] 50-50."

This is a phenomenon Cardozo says she never saw during the Chavez era. 

Some of Maduro's supporters remain optimistic, though. Juan Silva, a plumber who was celebrating in front of the Miraflores, points out that while Maduro lost significant political ground, "it was his first campaign." Referring to Maduro's detractors, Mr. Silva says, "He'll win them over with time."

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