Venezuelan Opposition Calls for Protests to Demand Recount

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) -

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Monday called on Venezuelans to take to the streets and peacefully demand a vote recount if election authorities formally proclaim Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor as the next president.

The day after Venezuela’s election board declared acting President Nicolas Maduro winner of Sunday’s presidential vote by a tight margin, Capriles insisted the opposition’s own count showed he was the victor and accused the government of conspiring to hide the truth to remain in power.

“We think we won the election. The other side thinks they won and we’re both within our rights,” Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, said in a news conference.

“All we’re asking is that our rights be respected, that the will of the people be respected, and that every single vote be counted, every little piece of paper, that paper isn’t for recycling, it’s proof.”

The request appeared to fall on deaf ears.

Shortly after Capriles spoke, senior ruling party official Dario Vivas told Reuters the proclamation ceremony would go ahead, and accused Capriles of trying to “destabilize” the country, home to the world’s largest oil reserves.

Conscious of Venezuela’s long history of turbulent protests, Capriles urged his supporters to resist temptations to resort to violence. He called for Venezuelans to bang pots and pans in protest on Monday night if Maduro is formally proclaimed winner.

If the stalemate continues, Capriles asked his followers to gather in protest on Tuesday in front of election board offices around the nation. If there is still no sign of a recount by Wednesday, Capriles pledged to lead a peaceful march through the streets of Caracas to the election board’s headquarters.

Uncertain Future

The controversy around Venezuela’s first presidential election without Chavez on the ballot in two decades ushered in new uncertainty in the OPEC nation of 29 million people.

It also raised doubts about the future of “Chavismo,” Chavez’s self-proclaimed socialist movement, without its charismatic founder, who died from cancer on March 5.

Before dying, Chavez named longtime protégé Maduro as his preferred successor, giving the burly former bus driver a huge boost heading into the election.

But the endorsement was not enough to ensure an easy victory for the uncharismatic Maduro, who edged out Capriles with 50.7 percent of the votes, according to election board returns.

Capriles took 49.1 percent, just 235,000 fewer votes, according to the official count. Opposition sources told Reuters their count showed Capriles won by more than 300,000 votes.

The streets of Caracas were mostly calm early Monday but tensions grew as the day progressed. By mid-afternoon, there were a handful of protests around the capital, with one seeking to disrupt traffic on the city’s main highway.

About 200 pro-opposition students protested in an upscale district, trying to enter a hotel where unofficial foreign election observers were meeting. Outside the opposition’s campaign headquarters, protesters shouted “No more fraud.”

Maduro, 50, said he was open to a full recount, even as he insisted his victory was clean and dedicated it to Chavez. Senior government officials, on state media, ridiculed the opposition as sore losers and praised Venezuela’s election system as foolproof.

“It’s impossible to manipulate the election result,” Jorge Rodriguez, Maduro’s campaign chief, said on state media. “The only way the opposition will recognize an election is if they win.”

The U.S. government backed the call for a full audit of the results and the Organization of American States offered to send election auditors to help. Chavista allies such as Russia and Cuba, which receive generous aid and subsidized oil from Venezuela, immediately congratulated Maduro.

Opposition leaders said they had gathered evidence of some 3,200 instances of voting irregularities, ranging from allegations of voters using fake IDs to intimidation of volunteers at polling centers.

Venezuela’s election board is no stranger to controversy. Over the years, the opposition has repeatedly accused it of turning a blind eye to the blatant use of state resources in favor of pro-Chavez candidates. Critics say four of its five members are openly pro-government.