Maduro wins in close vote over Henrique Capriles

Election officials in Venezuela say acting President Nicolas Maduro has won the special election to succeed his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

The national election authority announced late Sunday that Maduro had narrowly defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles, winning just 50 percent of all votes cast to Capriles’ 49 percent.

Venezuelans gathered in the streets of the capital of Caracas to celebrate the election of Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor. The 50-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister began the campaign with a double-digit lead in the polls over Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who lost decisively to Chávez in last year’s presidential election.

But Maduro’s lead shrank considerably in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote.  Capriles accused Maduro and the Chávez government of doing little to solve Venezuela’s economic problems, food shortages and soaring crime rate.

Maduro has pledged to continue what he calls the Chávez revolution, which supporters say used oil wealth to lift millions out of poverty.

Chávez died last month after a two-year battle with cancer.

He was a staunch socialist who was first elected president in 1998. He earned the enmity of the United States and others for such policies as nationalizing major companies and courting world leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

The opposition accused him of becoming a dictator, but he was revered by many of Venezuela’s poor.

Early election day the voting lines were shorter than expected in some parts of Caracas.  Maduro was counting on a high turnout by the poor to continue the Socialist Party’s rule in Venezuela.

Maduro has cast himself as his mentor’s son during the campaign, and has promised to continue oil-funded policies that cut poverty from 50 to 29 percent with popular health, education and food programs.

Maria Ortega said she voted for Maduro because that is what President Chávez wanted.

She said Venezuelans have a lot of faith and confidence in  Maduro, and if Chávez put him there it was for a reason.  She adds he did it with all his heart and voters must go with their hearts to support the legacy of Hugo Chávez.

Many voters say they were frustrated with the stagnant economy, the double-digit inflation, chronic power outages, and shortages of food and medicine.  The soaring crime rate is also a major issue for voters.  Venezuela has among the world’s highest homicide and kidnapping rates.

Capriles supporter Joselyn Fernández said she was thinking about her young niece when she voted.

She said she does not want her to live in a dictatorship, she is just starting life.  Ms. Fernández said she wants her niece to live and have a good life, so that she can go out on the street with a sense of security and get a good education.

The opposition has complained that Maduro has used the state bureaucracy of nearly 2.7-million workers and government-owned media to unfairly support his campaign.  But the voting process in Venezuela is generally considered fair and impartial.

Election official Juan Martínez said witnesses or observers from each party are on hand at polling stations to make sure there is no voter fraud.

He said the observers were looking to see that voters show the official identification and that it is not a copy or some other paper.

Nearly 19 million people including Venezuelans in Costa Rica were eligible to vote.

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