CARACAS, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, won a razor-thin victory in Sunday’s special presidential election, but the opposition candidate refused to accept the result and demanded a full recount.
Maduro’s close victory followed an often ugly, mudslinging campaign in which the winner promised to carry on Chavez’s self-styled socialist revolution, while challenger Henrique Capriles’ main message was that Chavez put a country with the world’s largest oil reserves on the road to ruin.
Despite the ill feelings, both men sent their supporters home and urged them to refrain from violence.
Maduro, acting president since Chavez’s March 5 death, held a double-digit advantage in opinion polls just two weeks ago, but electoral officials said he got just 50.7 percent of the votes to 49.1 percent for Capriles with nearly all ballots counted.
The margin was about 234,935 votes. Turnout was 78 percent, down from just over 80 percent in the October election that Chavez won by a nearly 11-point margin.
Chavistas set off fireworks and raced through downtown Caracas blasting horns in jubilation. But analysts called the slim margin a disaster for Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver who is believed to have close ties to Cuba.
In a victory speech, he told a crowd outside the presidential palace that his victory was further proof that Chavez “continues to be invincible.”
But, in a hint of discontent, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who many consider Maduro’s main rival, expressed dismay in a tweet: “The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism. It’s contradictory that the poor sectors of the population vote for their longtime exploiters.”
At Capriles’ campaign headquarters, people hung their heads quietly as the results were announced by an electoral council stacked with government loyalists. Many started crying; others just stared at TV screens in disbelief.
Later, Capriles emerged to angrily reject the official totals: “It is the government that has been defeated.”
He said his campaign came up with “a result that is different from the results announced today.”
“The biggest loser today is you,” Capriles said, directly addressing Maduro through the camera. “The people don’t love you.”
Armed forces joint chief, Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, called on the military to accept the results.
Capriles, an athletic 40-year-old state governor, had mocked and belittled Maduro as a poor, bland imitation of Chavez.
Millions of Venezuelans were lifted out of poverty under Chavez, but many also believe his government not only squandered, but plundered, much of the $1 trillion in oil revenues during his 14-year rule.
Venezuelans are afflicted by chronic power outages, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages, and rampant crime — one of the world’s highest homicide and kidnapping rates.
Analyst David Smilde at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank predicted the slim margin of victory would make Maduro extremely vulnerable.
“It will make people in his coalition think that perhaps he is not the one to lead the revolution forward,” Smilde said.
“This is a result in which the ‘official winner’ appears as the biggest loser,” said Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales. “The ‘official loser’ — the opposition — emerges even stronger than it did six months ago.”
Many across the nation put little stock in Maduro’s claims that sabotage by the far right was to blame for worsening power outages and food shortages in the weeks before the vote.
“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.”
In the Chavista stronghold of Petare outside Caracas, Maria Velasquez, 48, who works in a government soup kitchen that feeds 200 people, said she voted for Chavez’s man “because that is what my comandante ordered.”