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Tight election raises tensions in Venezuela

MYT 11:50:01 AM

CARACAS (Reuters) - Both sides in an election to choose a successor to Venezuela's late leader Hugo Chavez expressed confidence of victory after Sunday's vote, raising fears that the official result could be contested.

Venezuelans living in Mexico pose with their ink-stained fingers after voting for a successor to the late President Hugo Chavez, outside their embassy in Mexico City April 14, 2013. REUTERS/Henry Romero (MEXICO - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS)
Venezuelans living in Mexico pose with their ink-stained fingers after voting for a successor to the late President Hugo Chavez, outside their embassy in Mexico City April 14, 2013. REUTERS/Henry Romero (MEXICO - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS)

Acting President Nicolas Maduro led all polls before the vote, buoyed by Chavez's blessing before he died from cancer last month and vowing to continue the former president's self-styled socialist revolution.

But Maduro's rival, state governor Henrique Capriles, appeared to close the gap in the last days of the short campaign.

By late evening, there was still no word from the National Electoral Commission, which announces results only when there is an irreversible trend. An election board source said 98 percent of returns were in, indicating that it was a tight contest.

Government supporters began gathering and celebrating, but there was similar optimism at opposition headquarters.

"Father, brother, eternal commander ... your people did not fail you," Diosdado Cabello, a senior Chavez loyalist and head of the National Assembly, said in a tweet addressing the late leader.

Ramon Aveledo, a top opposition official, also struck an optimistic tone.

"We have millions of reasons to be happy," he told a news conference. "The head of the official campaign is cheating the people of this country."

Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, alleged earlier on Sunday evening that there was a plan to try to change the result of the vote, but did not give details.

Government officials described his allegation as irresponsible and said it ran the risk of adding to a tense atmosphere, including isolated scuffles at some centres.

"For a few days the 'anti-Chavistas' have been trying to create an absurd notion of fraud in an automated voting system, one that is recognized in the whole world as secure, trustworthy and transparent," said Maduro's campaign chief Jorge Rodriguez.

"To that gentleman's followers, we say: 'Don't go crazy.'"

Whoever wins will inherit control of the world's biggest oil reserves in an OPEC nation, where stark political polarization is one of Chavez's many legacies.

Also at stake is the generous economic aid Chavez showered on left-wing Latin American governments from Cuba to Bolivia.

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, has promised to deepen Chavez's "21st century socialism" if he triumphs. Capriles, who has generated widespread enthusiasm among the opposition, wants to take Venezuela down a more centrist path.

Under Venezuelan law, the candidate with the most votes wins, with no possibility of a run-off.

The election system has been generally regarded as reliable, and the opposition immediately accepted the results of the last election in October. Critics say, however, that the election commission turns a blind eye to the use of state resources by government candidates during campaigning.

Some witnesses reported isolated incidents of violence, including clashes during vote-auditing at two centres in Caracas. Some people were hurt in a fracas in the Santa Rosa de Lima district of the capital, while teargas was thrown in another city district, Prados del Este, the witnesses said.

LOWER TURNOUT

Lines were shorter than they were at the election in October, when an ailing Chavez comfortably beat Capriles by 11 percentage points. Then, a record 80 percent of registered voters cast ballots following an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign by Chavez's camp.

When Chavez won that election, the result was given at about 10 p.m. local time (0230 GMT).

Maduro built his election campaign largely on Chavez's legacy, especially among the poor.

"We're going to elect Maduro because he's following the path set by Chavez," Morelia Roa, a 58-year-old nurse, said after casting her ballot in a working class Caracas neighbourhood.

Given the deep mutual mistrust on both sides, some worry that a close or contested result could spark unrest. Some 170 international observers were on hand, many from left-leaning political parties across Latin America.

Sunday's vote was the first presidential election in two decades without Chavez on the ballot. In many ways, though, it was all about the late president, viewed by the poor as a messiah for giving them a political voice and for funnelling billions of dollars of oil revenue into social programs.

Critics saw him as an autocratic leader who bullied opponents and weakened the economy with waves of nationalizations, price controls and heavy government spending.

Maduro campaigned as a loyal disciple of Chavez, calling himself an "apostle" and "son" of the late president. Chavez gave Maduro a huge boost by endorsing him in his final speech in December before heading to Cuba for his last cancer operation.

True to form, Maduro dedicated his vote on Sunday to his political mentor.

"The last 21 years of my life have revolved around the dreams of a man, of a giant," an emotional Maduro said. "I never thought I'd be here. But here I am ... And I'm going to be president of the republic for the next six years."

WINNER'S CHALLENGES

If Maduro wins, he will immediately face big challenges as he tries to stamp his authority on a disparate ruling coalition while lacking his mentor's charisma, or the healthy state finances that Chavez enjoyed in last year's race.

It is hard to predict how he might do things his own way. Like many senior officials, Maduro was passionately loyal to Chavez and never voiced a different opinion in public.

Supporters say he could use his background as a union negotiator-turned-diplomat to build bridges, perhaps even with the United States after tensions during Chavez's 14-year rule.

But there was little sign of his softer side on the campaign trail. Maduro's rhetoric veered from outraged - alleging opposition plots to kill him using mercenaries - to light-hearted, such as poking fun at his own often-cited tale of how he was visited by Chavez's spirit in the form of a bird.

More often he sounded indignant, accusing the "far right" of plotting a repeat of a short-lived coup against Chavez a decade ago if the opposition loses Sunday's vote.

Maduro's camp said his Twitter account was hacked during the day, as well as those of other senior Socialist Party members, with obscene messages posted on them.

Should he pull off an upset, Capriles will also have a tough time running Venezuela. One of the biggest challenges will be to win over suspicious supporters of Chavez and Maduro. Both repeatedly derided the opposition candidate as a pampered rich kid, a traitor, and a puppet of "U.S. imperialism."

In last year's campaign, Capriles carefully avoided disparaging Chavez, in a bid to woo the poor. He has not afforded Maduro the same respect, denouncing him and his "coterie" as phony socialists who have enriched themselves while paying only lip service to Chavez's deeply held ideology.

Capriles touts a Brazilian-style model that mixes pro-business policies with heavy state spending on the poor, a recipe that made Brazil one of the world's hottest emerging economies in the past decade.

The opposition hopes bubbling discontent over daily problems such as rampant crime, high inflation, chronic power outages and occasional shortages of food staples and medicines will tip the vote in favour of Capriles.

"Capriles is our only hope. He's the best leader the opposition has had and could be a great president," Alberto Gomez, a 55-year-old bakery owner, said after voting in an upscale district of Caracas.

(Additional reporting by Caracas bureau reporters; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray and David Brunnstrom)


Related Stories:
Venezuelan expatriates make long trek to New Orleans to vote

Venezuela's Capriles alleges plan to "change" vote

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