Caracas – Venezuela’s political turmoil has intensified, after electoral authorities formally proclaimed Socialist Party candidate Nicolas Maduro as the country’s acting president.
Young supporters of opposition contender Henrique Capriles clashed with police following the confirmation, and police fired tear gas and plastic bullets at the demonstrators who burned tyres and blocked roads.
Maduro, who won Sunday’s election by about 300,000 votes, addressed the nation promising to continue the “Bolivarian revolution” initiated by his predecessor, deceased president Hugo Chavez.
“I am the first Chavista president after President Hugo Chavez Frias and I am clearly going to fulfill his legacy and protect the humble, the poor, protect the fatherland,” Maduro told cheering supporters after he was proclaimed acting president.
On Monday, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) said Maduro won 50.8 percent of the vote, against 49.0 percent for Capriles. The close race shocked many observers, as pollsters had predicted a double-digit victory for Maduro.
“We are indeed happy about the elections, but we can’t be happy about how we won them [because of the close race],” Alfredo Retortillo, an art teacher and government supporter, told Al Jazeera as he joined a mobilisation outside the CNE’s headquarters on Monday. “Many of our people didn’t go out to vote; many voters turned their backs on us.”
Turnout was higher than 78 percent of 18.9 million registered voters, down slightly compared to the 2012 presidential vote.
On Sunday, Maduro called on the CNE to do a full audit of the votes, but he seems to have reneged on that pledge.
“There is no chance there will be a recount,” Diosdado Cabello, President of the National Assembly and a member of the governing socialists, told Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo on Monday. “Recounting the votes is absurd because elections here are electronic.”
‘We will stay on the streets’
That infuriated Capriles and his supporters, who are demanding a recount.
“The CNE and all of the public bodies belong to the government and they are all crooked,” Orlando Hirdalgo, a retired engineer and Capriles supporter told Al Jazeera as he protested in Altamira Square, the centre of opposition activity. “The whole international community is saying the vote was unfair.”
The US state department has said that it doesn’t recognise Maduro as the president and called for a recount. The presidents of Argentina, Cuba, and Bolivia, meanwhile, voiced support for Maduro’s election. Observers from the Organisation of American States (OAS) have said the vote was flawed.
The voting system is electronic, how can boxes of ballots go missing? The paper ballot is just to confirm who you voted for.
Capriles’ camp say they recorded 3,200 electoral violations and many opposition supporters believe ballot boxes were discarded. “In front of my voting centre, I saw people from the government removing bags full of [ballot] print-outs,” Carolina Insua, a businesswoman, told Al Jazeera. “We will stay on the streets until there is a full recount.”
Government supporters say those claims are preposterous and the opposition’s plans are pushing the sharply divided country towards civil strife.
“The voting system is electronic, how can boxes of ballots go missing? The paper ballot is just to confirm who you voted for, the computer records the vote,” Alejandra Escalona, a town planner and government supporter, told Al Jazeera. “Capriles is being irresponsible by not recognising the results. Maduro is the president.”
Opposition supporters believe electoral manipulation started long before the actual voting process. The Socialist Party, they say, has used public resources for partisan ends, while stifling the media, especially opposition TV stations.
Maduro’s backers dismiss those claims, contending that foreign groups are supporting Capriles and that most of the media is owned by private companies who sympathise with the opposition.
Despite the CNE’s confirmation of Maduro, some government supporters say it’s time for their movement to do some soul searching. In the October 2012 election, Chavez beat Capriles by a margin of more than 10 percent. That lead has evaporated and the country’s divisions are deeper than ever.
“Now is the moment for some critical thinking,” Retortillo, the art teacher, said. “After we draw our conclusions, we will make the changes that need to happen.”
Fourteen years of socialist governence has led to impressive decreases in inequality and poverty in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves. But crime and inflation are out of control and the country is facing unprecedented political polarisation.
If there is one thing supporters of the competing camps agree on, it’s that the situation is teetering on the brink of serious unrest. “I am worried it could get violent,” Cynthia Aguilar, a student and opposition supporter told Al Jazeera. “Sooner or later it could happen.”
Maduro is set to be sworn in on April 19.