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Tight win for Chavez's heir spells uncertainty for Venezuela

Acting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro waves to supporters as he leaves after voting for the successor to the late President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas April 14, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins Acting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro waves to supporters. Credit: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Late socialist leader Hugo Chavez's chosen successor Nicolas Maduro won Venezuela's presidential election by a whisker but now faces opposition protests plus a host of economic and political challenges in the OPEC nation.

The 50-year-old former bus driver, whom Chavez named as his preferred heir before dying from cancer, edged out opposition challenger Henrique Capriles by winning 50.7 percent of the votes in the election. Capriles won 49.1 percent support, a difference of just 235,000 ballots.

Capriles, whose strong showing beat most forecasts, refused to recognize the result and said his team had a list of 3,000 irregularities ranging from gunshots to the illegal reopening of polling centers.

"I didn't fight against a candidate today, but against the whole abuse of power," said Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, demanding a recount.

"Mr. Maduro, the loser was you. ... This system is collapsing, it's like a castle of sand — touch it and it falls."

A protracted election dispute could cause instability in a deeply polarized nation with the world's largest oil reserves.

Though some opposition supporters chanted "fraud," banged pots and pans, and burned tires in protest, Capriles did not call them onto the streets en masse.

Maduro said he would accept a full recount, even as he insisted his victory was clean and dedicated it to Chavez.

"We've had a fair, legal and constitutional triumph," Maduro told a victory rally. "To those who didn't vote for us, I call for unity. We are going to work together for the security and economy of this country."

The election board said Maduro's win was "irreversible" and gave no indication of when it might carry out an audit.

'Chavismo' challenged

Maduro's slim victory provides an inauspicious start for the "Chavismo" movement's transition to a post-Chavez era, and raises the possibility that he could face challenges from rivals within the disparate leftist coalition.

His supporters set off fireworks, and some sang and danced in the streets, but celebrations were far more muted than after Chavez's comfortable re-election last October.

"On one hand, we're happy, but the result is not exactly what we had expected," said Gregory Belfort, 32, a computer technician looking slightly dazed with other government supporters in front of the presidential palace.

"It means there are a lot of people out there who support Chavez but didn't vote for Maduro, which is valid."

The slim margin came as a shock to many ardent Chavez supporters, who had become accustomed to his double-digit election victories during his 14-year rule, including an 11 percentage point win over Capriles last October.

Maduro's campaign was built almost entirely on his close ties to the late leader and emotional stories of Chavez's final days before succumbing to cancer.

His narrow win leaves him with less authority to lead the broad ruling alliance that includes military officers, oil executives and armed slum leaders. It had been held together mainly by Chavez's iron grip and mesmerizing personality.

"This is the most delicate moment in the history of 'Chavismo' since 2002," said Javier Corrales, a U.S. political scientist and Venezuela expert at Amherst College, referring to a brief coup against Chavez 11 years ago.

"With these results, the opposition might not concede easily, and Maduro will have a hard time demonstrating to the top leadership of Chavismo that he is a formidable leader."

It will also add to the difficulty Maduro faces in moving from the sentimental tales of Chavez that filled his campaign into actual governance of a nation with high inflation, a slowing economy, Byzantine currency controls and one of the world's worst crime rates.

"These results require deep self-criticism," said Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the National Assembly whom many Venezuelans see as a potential rival to Maduro.

"It's contradictory that some among the poor vote for those who always exploit them," Cabello added on Twitter. "Let's turn over every stone to find out faults but not put the fatherland or the legacy of our commander (Chavez) in danger."

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