CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Government supporters began filling the streets of Venezuela’s capital Friday to celebrate the inauguration of their leader, even as opponents greeted officials’ surprise announcement they will accept an audit of the disputed vote that handed a narrow margin of victory to the heir of late President Hugo Chavez.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said the audit announced Thursday night will prove he won the presidency, but officials appear to be confident there will be no reversal of the result when the count is finished, long after Nicolas Maduro is legally sworn in for a new term as president.
Still, the audit was a sudden reversal for a government that insisted all week that there would be no review of Sunday’s vote and took a hard line against the opposition that included allegedly brutal treatment of protesters. The announcement appeared to be the result of pressure from at least some of the South American leaders who called an emergency meeting in Lima, Peru, Thursday night to discuss Venezuela’s electoral crisis — and wound up endorsing Maduro’s victory.
Will the recount strengthen the opposition?
Even if it leaves the vote standing and calms tensions in the country, the recount will strengthen the Venezuelan opposition against a president whose narrow victory left him far weaker than his widely popular predecessor Chavez, analysts said. That will complicate Maduro’s effort to consolidate control of a country struggling with steep inflation, shortages of food and medicines, chronic power outages and one of the world’s highest homicide and kidnapping rates.
Hundreds of red-clad Chavistas marched through some of Caracas’ main avenues hours ahead of the inauguration, shouting and blowing trumpets, led by riders on horseback and even massive bulls yoked in pairs. But the showing, at least by mid-morning, was a faint echo of the rallies that drew tens of thousands to the streets during the Chavez era.
“The most significant thing to emerge from this is the political victory” for the opposition, said Maria Isabel Puerta, a political science professor at the University of Carabobo. “The opposition’s role is strengthened and Capriles’ leadership is consolidated.”
Maduro, 50, was declared the winner of Sunday’s election by a slim 267,000-vote margin out of 14.9 million ballots cast. That did not include more than 100,000 votes cast abroad, where more than 90 percent were cast for Capriles in an earlier election against Chavez last October.
Venezuelans voted on computers that issued paper receipts used to confirm the accuracy of the electronic vote. Authorities checked 54 percent of the electronic vote against the paper receipts and registers containing the names, signatures and fingerprints of each voter.
Venezuela’s National Electoral Council said just before the start of the meeting in Lima that it would audit 46 percent of the vote not already scrutinized on election night. An electoral official told The Associated Press that the new process, to start next week, would replicate the one from election night.
Capriles has alleged a series of vote irregularities, some of which would be turned up by a new audit, such as charges that there was damage to 3,535 voting machines, representing 189,982 votes, and that voting rolls included 600,000 dead people. He said that many of those irregularities took place in polling locations that weren’t audited on election day.
Capriles had demanded a full vote-by-vote recount but said he accepted the ruling.
“We are where we want to be,” a satisfied but cautious-looking Capriles told a news conference after the Thursday night announcement. “I think I will have the universe of voters needed to get where I want to be.”
Some analysts said the government-controlled recount would almost certainly confirm Maduro’s victory and force the opposition to accept it. Others saw the possibility that the audit could turn up enough irregularities to throw the election result into question and spawn national turmoil.
“It opens a sort of Pandora’s box,” said Edgar Gutierrez, an independent political analyst in Caracas. “I say this because Capriles has said that the irregularities that he’s denounced are contained in this 46 percent of the vote and if he’s right that irregularity has to come to light and it can open the road to a challenge of the vote.”
In a declaration released after the 3 1/2-hour meeting, the South American presidents asked “all parties who participated in the election to respect the official results” and said they “took positive note” of the electoral council’s audit decision.
Maduro, in a Twitter message, proclaimed the meeting a “great success.”
“Complete support for the people and democracy of Venezuela,” Maduro continued. “Thank you South America! I await you in Caracas.”
Maduro had never rejected the audit publicly, and it was possible pressure from the military or more moderate members of his ruling clique were a factor. Maduro heads a faction believed to be more radical.
“This is a concession to Capriles, but it is also a way of calling his bluff. It is exceedingly unlikely that such an audit will show a different result,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia.
The so-called Chavistas control all the levers of power in Venezuela, so the electoral council’s flip-flop can only be seen as having the government’s imprimatur.
A petition to halt Maduro’s inauguration had been rejected earlier Thursday by the country’s highest court.
The late president, who succumbed to cancer last month after 14 years in power, endeared himself to the poor but, Capriles argued, had put the country with the world’s largest oil reserves on the road to ruin.
Capriles, 40, called on his supporters to back down from confrontation and play music, preferably salsa, instead of banging on pots in protest, as they have done nightly all week since the council ratified Maduro’s victory.
The man who had been calling Maduro illegitimate and belittling him as incompetent was now saying the inauguration should go forward.
“This government will continue to govern until this thing gets resolved,” Capriles said. “It’s a history of chapters.”
As for the vote count, which will be accompanied by both sides, “we know where the problems are,” Capriles said.
Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena said 12,000 voting machines would be audited beginning next week in a process that she said would take a month to complete.
The opposition has been battered for years by Chavez and many of its members say political repression has only increased under Maduro, including the arrests of more than 300 protesters this week for staging marches against Sunday’s alleged election theft.
In less than two weeks preceding the election, Maduro had squandered a double-digit lead in the polls as Venezuelans upset by the troubled economy, and other social problems turned away from a candidate many considered a poor imitation of the charismatic leader for whom he long served as foreign minister.
No independent international election monitor teams scrutinized the vote, and Capriles said some members of the military had been arrested for trying to prevent abuses.