Defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has demanded a recount after he was beaten by Hugo Chavez’s hand-picked successor as president in a razor-thin election battle today.
Mr Capriles said his campaign tally of votes came up with “a result that is different from the results announced today”.
Winner Nicolas Maduro campaigned on a promise to carry on Mr Chavez’s self-styled socialist revolution and defeated two-time challenger Mr Capriles, who claimed the late president’s regime has put Venezuela on the road to ruin.
Officials say Maduro defeated Mr Capriles by only about 300,000 votes. The margin was 50.8 to 49.1%.
Mr Maduro, acting president since Mr Chavez’s death from cancer, held a double-digit advantage just two weeks ago.
Chavistas set off fireworks and blasted car horns as they cruised through Caracas in jubilation.
But at Mr Capriles’ campaign headquarters, people hung their heads as the results were announced by an electoral council stacked with government loyalists. Many started crying and others stared at TV screens in disbelief.
“I can’t believe this. This can’t be happening. The votes should all be recounted to be 100% sure who won,” said Jenny Morales, 26, a volunteer who handed out posters and leaflets during the campaign.
The mood lightened after another electoral council director, Vicente Diaz, proposed an audit of the vote.
Mr Maduro addressed a crowd from the presidential palace, calling his victory further proof that Mr Chavez “continues to be invincible, that he continues to win battles”.
He said Mr Capriles had called him before the results were announced to suggest a “pact” but he had refused.
Mr Maduro, a long-time foreign minister to Mr Chavez, rode a wave of sympathy for the charismatic leader to victory, pinning his hopes on the immense loyalty for his boss among millions of poor beneficiaries of government largesse and the powerful state apparatus that Mr Chavez skilfully consolidated.
Mr Capriles’ main campaign weapon was to simply emphasise “the incompetence of the state” in handling the world’s largest oil reserves.
Millions of Venezuelans were lifted out of poverty under Mr Chavez, but many also believe his government not only squandered, but plundered, much of the one trillion dollars in oil revenues during his tenure.
Venezuelans are afflicted by chronic power cuts, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages and rampant crime – one of the world’s highest murdere and kidnapping rates – that the opposition said worsened after Mr Chavez died on March 5.
That discontent was thick across the nation.
“We can’t continue to believe in messiahs,” said Jose Romero, a 48-year-old industrial engineer who voted for Capriles in the central city of Valencia.
“This country has learned a lot and today we know that one person can’t fix everything.”
Turnout was 78%, down from just over 80% in the October election that Mr Chavez won by a nearly 11-point margin.