Thousands protest against Venezuela's president-elect

AFP , Tuesday 16 Apr 2013

Thousands in Caracas, Venezuela protest the election of Nicolas Maduro, late leader Hugo Chavez's purported political heir, as president, saying that elections were fraud and demanding a recount

Opposition supporters and students clash with national guard soldiers and riot police, the latter firing teargas at them (Photo: AP)

Thousands of opposition supporters crammed the streets of Caracas on Monday, banging pots, burning trash bags and chanting "fraud" to protest the confirmation of late leader Hugo Chavez's political heir as president-elect.

The demonstration erupted as the National Electoral Council (CNE) certified the victory of acting President Nicolas Maduro against his opponent Henrique Capriles, who refused to concede defeat and demanded a full recount.

At one spot, police dispersed a group of protesters with tear gas. Piles of trash burned along a central boulevard and later in the evening scores of Capriles supporters sped by in motorcycles, honking their horns.

"We are here because they stole our vote. They cheated us," said 60-year-old Selma Orjuela as she banged a pot. "We need Capriles to be president. That's why we voted, and we are sure we won."

With the opposition planning more protests on Tuesday and Wednesday, Maduro urged his supporters to demonstrate on the same days and "combat in peace" across the nation.

Maduro -- who had voiced support for an audit of the vote shortly after the results were announced -- now said that Capriles's demand for a full recount was the "whims of a bourgeois."

Earlier, the CNE handed the certified results to Maduro, saying he defeated Capriles 50.75 percent to 48.97 percent -- a difference of 265,000 votes.

The final gap was about 30,000 votes wider than initial results, but it was still the opposition's best result against "Chavismo" over the 14 years that the latter has dominated the nation, which sits on the world's largest oil reserves.

"I am the son of Chavez," Maduro said. "I am the first Chavista president after Hugo Chavez Frias, and I will fulfill his legacy to protect the poor, to protect our independence."

The 50-year-old former foreign minister accused the opposition of having a "coup mentality."

"Those who would try to undo a democratic majority's will, what they are doing is carrying out, or pushing for, a coup d'etat," Maduro charged.

"I am reporting that Venezuela is on the road to the preparing of an act that would disregard democratic institutions," he warned.

But with the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS) backing his demand for a recount, Capriles called Maduro an "illegitimate president."

Capriles, who wants the CNE to count all the backup ballots printed out by the voting machines, urged supporters to come out and protest to "let the world know our outrage, our anger."

The 40-year-old state governor also called on Venezuelans to peacefully protest in front of CNE offices on Tuesday and Wednesday to demand a full recount.

But CNE president Tibisay Lucena defended the electronic voting system, telling the opposition it should use "the legal path" instead of "threats" if it wants to contest the result, citing the 2000 US election that was decided by the Supreme Court.

In a business district known as a Capriles stronghold, protesters chanted "We see it, we feel it, Capriles president!" while waving Venezuela's yellow, blue and red flag.

"President Capriles won. They just didn't count the vote like they should have," said Elis Carvallo, 33, with the Venezuelan colors painted on her face.

Outside the CNE, hundreds of Chavistas dressed in red cheered and chanted "Chavez lives! The struggle goes on!" in a central Caracas square.

"We won by a hair, but we will support Maduro 100 percent," said Marta Rodriguez, 48. "Capriles asked people to trigger conflict in the country. We won't fall into provocations, but when the time comes, we will come out to defend Maduro."

The OAS backed calls for a recount, while the White House said a full audit would be an "important, prudent and necessary step."

"In our view, rushing to a decision in these circumstances would be inconsistent with the expectations of Venezuelans for a clear and democratic outcome," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Around the world, Chavez's closest allies -- from Cuba to Ecuador, Brazil and Russia -- congratulated their friend's chosen heir, one month after the charismatic leader lost his battle to cancer aged 58.

Riding a wave of grief over his mentor's death, Maduro led opinion polls by double digits ahead of Sunday's vote, but Capriles tapped into deep discontent over rampant crime and economic weakness.

Both candidates had pledged during the campaign to recognize the result.

But Capriles -- who accepted defeat when Chavez beat him by 11 points in October polls -- said he had a list of some 3,200 complaints of irregularities during the election.

Maduro is due to be sworn in on Friday to complete Chavez's six-year term, which only began in January.

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