Opposition challenges vote in badly polarized Venezuela

Venezuela’s government-friendly electoral council indicated Monday it would quickly certify the presidential victory of Hugo Chavez’ hand-picked successor, apparently ignoring opposition demands for a recount in the tight race.

The move is bound to further heighten instability in an already deeply polarized nation where Nicolas Maduro was elected Sunday by a margin of 50.7 percent to 49.1 percent — a difference of just 235,000 votes out of 14.8 million cast.

“Until every vote is counted, Venezuela has an “illegitimate president and we denounce that to the world,” opposition candidate Henrique Capriles tweeted Monday.

His demand for a recount was being considered Monday by the National Electoral Council, and one of the council’s five members, independent Vicente Diaz, had also proposed a full recount.

But its president, Tibisay Lucena, said Sunday night in announcing the outcome that the result was “irreversible” and the electoral council’s press office said Maduro’s victory would be “proclaimed” later Monday. State television called on government supporters to join Maduro in a public square for the event.

Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, demanded Monday that the proclamation be suspended and called on his supporters to mass outside the electoral council today.

He also claimed that members of the military — “an important group in various cities” — had been detained for trying to guarantee a free and fair election. He said they had been ordered to ignore abuses they witnessed. Capriles did not offer further details, such as how many were involved.

He says his campaign’s vote count resulted in “a different result” and has received more than 3,200 complaints of irregularities — all by pro-government forces. He demanded every single ballot be recounted.

The winner is to be formally inaugurated Friday for a six-year-term.

Sworn in as acting president after Chavez’s March 5 death, Maduro squandered a double-digit advantage in opinion polls just two weeks earlier as Capriles accused the ruling Chavistas of running the oil-rich country into the ground.

By contrast, Chavez defeated Capriles by a nearly 11-point margin in October.

Maduro said during his victory speech Sunday night that he had no problem with a recount.

“Let 100 percent of the ballot boxes be opened,” he said. “We’re going to do it; we have no fear.”

Maduro did not, however, endorse a manual recount of individual ballots, and his campaign manager, Jorge Rodrigez, repeated that position Monday.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said a “100 percent audit” of the results would be “an important, prudent and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results.”

The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, also called for a “full recount.”

Under Venezuela’s voting system, 54 percent of the tallies printed out by individual voting machines are routinely audited, and that was done Sunday night, said Dashiell Lopez, coordinator of the independent voting rights group SUMATE.

Individual ballots are not included in that audit.

No independent observer teams monitored the election as Chavez’s government in recent years has rejected then. Instead it invited witnesses to “accompany the process.”

The challenger’s camp has not yet explained how it intends to proceed with the recount demand.

Venezuelan election law does not specify how a recount might proceed or whether a candidate even has the right to demand one, said Lopez.