Election council to audit vote in Venezuela

Apr 19, 2013, 9:50 AM EDT
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles smiles after a press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, late Thursday, April 18, 2013.
(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Government supporters began filling the streets of Venezuela's capital early Friday to celebrate the inauguration of their leader, even as opponents greeted officials' surprise announcement they will accept an audit of the disputed vote that handed a narrow margin of victory to the heir of late President Hugo Chavez.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said the audit announced Thursday night will prove he won the presidency, but officials appear to be confident there will be no reversal of the result when the count is finished — long after Nicolas Maduro is legally sworn in for a new term as president.
Still, the audit was a sudden concession from a government that insisted all week that there would be no review of Sunday's vote and took a hard line against the opposition that included allegedly brutal treatment of protesters. The announcement appeared to be the result of pressure from at least some of the South American leaders who called an emergency meeting in Lima, Peru, Thursday night to discuss Venezuela's electoral crisis — and wound up endorsing Maduro's victory.
Venezuela's National Electoral Council said just before the start of the meeting in Lima that it would audit the 46 percent of the vote not already scrutinized on election night.
"We are where we want to be," a satisfied but cautious-looking Capriles told a news conference after the Thursday night announcement. "I think I will have the universe of voters needed to get where I want to be."
Capriles had demanded a full vote-by-vote recount but said he accepted the ruling.
In a declaration released after the 3 1/2-hour meeting, the South American presidents asked "all parties who participated in the election to respect the official results" and said they "took positive note" of the electoral council's audit decision.
Maduro, in a Twitter message, proclaimed the meeting a "great success."
"Complete support for the people and democracy of Venezuela," Maduro continued. "Thank you South America! I await you in Caracas."
Maduro had never rejected the audit publicly, and it was possible pressure from the military or more moderate members of his ruling clique were a factor. Maduro heads a faction believed to be more radical.
"This is a concession to Capriles, but it is also a way of calling his bluff. It is exceedingly unlikely that such an audit will show a different result," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia.
The so-called Chavistas control all the levers of power in Venezuela, so the electoral council's flip-flop can only be seen as having the government's imprimatur.
A petition to halt Maduro's inauguration had been rejected earlier Thursday by the country's highest court.
Opposition supporters waxed optimistic, even triumphant, on social networks, hoping this could lead to reconciliation in a bitterly divided nation where about half the people have just rejected Chavismo without Chavez.
The late president, who succumbed to cancer last month after 14 years in power, endeared himself to the poor but, Capriles argued, had put the country with the world's largest oil reserves on the road to ruin.
Capriles, 40, called on his supporters to back down from confrontation and play music, preferably salsa, instead of banging on pots in protest, as they have done nightly all week since the council ratified Maduro's victory.
The man who had been calling Maduro illegitimate and belittling him as incompetent was now saying the inauguration should go forward.
"This government will continue to govern until this thing gets resolved," Capriles said. "It's a history of chapters."
As for the vote count, which will be accompanied by both sides, "we know where the problems are," Capriles said.
He was referring to votes cast in the 12,000 voting machines that council President Tibisay Lucena said would be audited beginning next week in a process that she said would take a month to complete.
The opposition has been battered for years by Chavez and many of its members say political repression has only increased under Maduro, including the arrests of more than 300 protesters this week for staging marches against Sunday's alleged election theft.
Capriles said he will insist that every single vote receipt be counted and compared to voter registries as well as to voting machine tally sheets.
In announcing the audit, Lucena did not say whether authorities would do that. But a council spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not permitted to be named, said the audit would be done as Capriles specified.
Maduro was declared the winner of Sunday's election by a slim 267,000-vote margin out of 14.9 million ballots cast. That did not include more than 100,000 votes cast abroad, where more than 90 percent were cast for Capriles in elections last October.
In less than two weeks preceding the election, Maduro had squandered a double-digit lead in the polls as Venezuelans upset by a troubled economy, rampant crime, food shortages and worsening power outages turned away from a candidate many considered a poor imitation of the charismatic leader for whom he long served as foreign minister.
Capriles maintains victory was stolen from him through intimidation and other abuses and presented a list that included using the threat of violence to force opposition monitors from 283 polling stations, in some cases at gunpoint.
No independent international election monitor teams scrutinized the vote, and Capriles said some members of the military had been arrested for trying to prevent abuses.
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, Eduardo Castillo and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.