Heir to Chávez accuses opponent's camp of plotting a coup after Henrique Capriles calls for recount and street demonstrations
Venezuelan security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell protests on Monday as Nicolás Maduro - the handpicked heir of Hugo Chávez - was proclaimed president after a wafer-thin and fiercely disputed vote.
The election on Sunday gave Maduro a 1.6 percentage point victory over his pro-business rival, Henrique Capriles, according to the National Electoral Council.
The closest vote the country has seen in more than 40 years has sparked accusations of fraud and attempts to destabilise the oil-rich South American nation.
Capriles has refused to accept the result and called for a recount and peaceful street demonstrations. The ruling camp have accused the opposition of plotting a coup.
Signs of unrest are already apparent. El Universal newspaper reported protests in six cities.
In Caracas, troops are said to have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of thousands. Twelve student protestors were reportedly injured in Barquisimeto a city in the middle of the country. Images spread by Twitter showed apparently injured protestors being carried away. The scale of the unrest is, as yet, hard to verify.
Maduro initially stated that he was willing to accept a recount. On Monday, however, the council - which is skewed towards the ruling camp - said the result was irreversible and proclaimed Maduro acting president later the same day. An inauguration is set for 19 April.
With no sign of a recount taking place, the decision has sparked outrage among opposition supporters.
Claiming 3,000 election irregularities, Capriles said he would consider the government illegitimate without a recount and called on his supporters to show their unhappiness with cacerolazo- a popular form of protest where people bang on pots and pans.
"If both parties said that they agreed to count all votes, why the hurry? What are they hiding?", Capriles said. "I want the clanging of pots and pans to be heard around the world. We must let the world know our rage and our indignation."
Ruling camp officials say the allegations of electoral impropriety are part of a US-sponsored plot to destabilise the country and undermine the legitimacy of its elected leader.
The head of Maduro's campaign team, Jorge Rodriguez, said Capriles's rejection of the results and appeal for protests constituted a coup attempt.
"This is a call to pit brothers against brothers... They want to put our cities through the same anguish that they flooded them with in 2002-4," he said, referring to an attempted coup against Chávez 11 years ago.
"I am 100% sure that the results are what we say. Yesterday we audited 54% of the boxes and the results show the same results," he said. "Behind your words, Mr Capriles, there is a clear call for a coup".
Outside observers have previously declared Venezuela's voting system - which incorporates both an electronic ballot and a hard copy - to be among the best in the world.
Maduro, a former trade union negotiator and foreign minister, won with 7,505,338 votes, or 50.66% of the poll, while Capriles lagged a short distance behind on 7,270,403, or 49.07%.
This was considerably below the 12 percentage point winning margin attained by Chávez in October – underlining the difficulty the new president faces in living up to the reputation of his charismatic predecessor, who died of cancer last month.
Questions are already being asked within the ruling camp about the loss of 670,000 votes since the last presidential election six months ago, when Chávez beat Capriles by double digits.
National assembly president Diosdado Cabello, who many consider Maduro's main rival within their movement, tweeted: "The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism."
Maduro - who was chosen by Chávez in the last televised address he gave before undergoing ultimately unsuccessful cancer surgery - was seen until recently as a relatively low-key figure in the government. To boost his profile, he tried to emulate his iconic predecessor in the election campaign with a mix of anti-imperial rhetoric, conspiracy accusations and endorsements from Latin American left wing leaders and celebrities like Diego Maradona. But his message of continuity has left many unconvinced.
Jackson Gonzalez was among those who have switched sides since the last presidential election. He said the country's new leader lacked the qualities and charisma needed to deal with major problems, such as rising crime.
"I have always voted for Chávez, but Maduro is not Chávez. Chávez could execute a plan but after he died I felt we needed a change" said the 28-year-old. "A lot of the things Maduro did were a bad imitation of the commander and it felt wrong."
Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College, said the slim mandate would complicate Maduro's ability to deal with three key challenges: coping with a troubled economy, dealing with a resurgent opposition and maintaining party loyalty.
"Maduro will have to preserve the electoral coalition within chavismo, which consists of an alliance between the more radical sectors of a civilian left with military sectors", Corrales said.
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