Nicolas Maduro, the anointed heir of Hugo Chavez, won a very slim majority in the presidential election on Sunday, setting up the possibility of a recount amid accusations by the opposition of fraud.
Justice First candidate Henrique Capriles did far better than the polls said he was going to, and the narrow 235,000 vote victory for Maduro raises serious questions about the validity of the vote given that the entire electoral machinery is in the hands of the socialist government.
The 50-year-old former bus driver, whom Chavez named as his preferred heir before dying from cancer, edged out opposition challenger Henrique Capriles with 50.7 percent of the votes in Sunday's election, according to election board returns. Capriles took 49.1 percent, a difference of just 235,000 ballots.
Capriles, whose strong showing beat most forecasts, refused to recognize the result and said his team had a list of more than 3,000 irregularities ranging from gunshots to the illegal reopening of polling centers.
"I didn't fight against a candidate today, but against the whole abuse of power," said Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, demanding a recount.
"Mr. Maduro, you were the loser ... This system is collapsing, it's like a castle of sand - touch it and it falls."
A protracted election dispute could cause instability in a deeply polarized nation with the world's largest oil reserves.
Though some opposition supporters chanted "fraud," banged pots and pans and burned tires in protest, Capriles did not call them onto the streets en masse.
Maduro said he would accept a full recount, even as he insisted his victory was clean and dedicated it to Chavez.
"We've had a fair, legal and constitutional triumph," Maduro told his victory rally. "To those who didn't vote for us, I call for unity. We are going to work together for the security and economy of this country."
The election board said Maduro's win was "irreversible" and gave no indication of when it might carry out an audit.
Maduro's slim victory provides an inauspicious start for the "Chavismo" movement's transition to a post-Chavez era, and raises the possibility that he could face challenges from rivals within the disparate leftist coalition.
Chavez beat Capriles by 11 percentage points in October, showing how quickly the gap between the two sides has eroded without the larger-than-life presence of the former leader. It raises doubts about the long-term appeal and durability of a movement that Chavez built, led and held together throughout his 14 years in power.
A recount won't prove fraud if the ballot boxes have been stuffed already. The problem is with total government control of the electoral system, the opportunity to get away with almost unlimited fraud is huge. Capriles may have won by a million votes but we'll probably never know.