CARACAS (Reuters) – Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who became Hugo Chavez’s protege, narrowly won Venezuela’s presidential election on Sunday, the electoral authority said, allowing him to continue the socialist policies of his late predecessor.
Supporters let off fireworks in celebration while opposition backers banged pots and pans in protest after officials said Maduro won 50.7 percent of votes, compared to 49.1 percent for his rival, Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state.
The National Electoral Council said more than 99 percent of the ballots had been counted and the result was “irreversible.”
A little-known union activist before becoming a lawmaker and Chavez confidante from the early 1990s, Maduro will now lead the nation with the world’s biggest oil reserves for the next six years.
Chavez, who ruled for 14 years, anointed Maduro as his political heir in his last speech to the country before succumbing to cancer on March 5.
That gave the former vice president and foreign minister a huge advantage but Capriles narrowed the gap in the final days of the campaign and the result was much closer than many had expected.
“The fight continues!” Maduro, 50, told a victory rally.
“This was the first time without the giant candidate, but he left behind his ‘son’, who is now going to be president and is going to show he is worthy of the fatherland.”
Maduro beat Capriles by almost 235,000 votes, the electoral council said. There was no immediate response from Capriles, who earlier on Sunday alleged that there was a plan to try to change the result of the election.
Capriles, 40, had argued that voters were tired of divisive Chavez-era politics, and vowed to tackle daily worries such as violent crime, high inflation and creaking utilities.
But in Venezuela’s first presidential election without Chavez for two decades, the ruling Socialist Party’s powerful get-out-the-vote machinery swung into action behind Maduro.
Chavez’s death, at 58, had cemented his already cult-like status among supporters, who adored his down-to-earth style, humble beginnings, aggressive “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, and channeling of oil revenue into social welfare projects.
Maduro began his victory speech waving a picture of Chavez next to a crucifix, and also played a recording of the late president’s voice singing Venezuela’s national anthem.
Maduro said he had spoken by telephone to Capriles, but rejected what he said was the opposition leader’s proposal to sit down with election authorities to scrutinize the figures.
He did, however, say he would be open to an audit, and urged Venezuelans to remain peaceful.