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Maduro certified as election winner amid protests

Tuesday - 4/16/2013, 5:52am  ET

Demonstrators, one holding a poster of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, confront riot police from behind a burning barricade in the Altamira neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, April 15, 2013. National Guard troops fired tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse demonstrators protesting the official results in Venezuela's disputed presidential election.(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

FRANK BAJAK
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela's government-friendly electoral council quickly certified the razor-thin presidential victory of Hugo Chavez' hand-picked successor Monday, apparently ignoring opposition demands for a recount as anti-government protests broke out in the bitterly polarized nation.

People stood on balconies banging pots and pans in protest as the electoral council's president proclaimed Nicolas Maduro president for the next six years. In the evening, they did it again, a raucous clanging in neighborhoods rich and poor, including the one surrounding the presidential palace where Maduro was holding a news conference.

In the afternoon, thousands of young people clashed with National Guard troops in riot gear who fired tear gas and plastic bullets to block the protesters back from marching on the city center. The demonstrators threw stones and pieces of concrete. Protests also were reported in provincial cities.

There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Maduro was elected Sunday by a margin of 50.8 percent to 49 percent over challenger Henrique Capriles -- a difference of just 262,000 votes out of 14.9 million cast, according to an updated official count released Monday.

Sworn in as acting president after Chavez's March 5 death from cancer, Maduro squandered a double-digit advantage in opinion polls in two weeks as Capriles highlighted what he called the ruling Chavistas' abysmal management of the oil-rich country's economy and infrastructure, citing myriad woes including food and medicine shortages, worsening power outages and rampant crime.

By contrast, Chavez had defeated Capriles by a nearly 11-point margin in October.

Until every vote is counted, Venezuela has an "illegitimate president and we denounce that to the world," Capriles tweeted Monday.

One of the five members of the National Electoral Council, independent Vicente Diaz, also backed a full recount, as did the United States and the Organization of American States.

But the electoral council president, Tibisay Lucena, said in announcing the outcome Sunday that it was "irreversible." At the proclamation ceremony Monday, she called Venezuela "a champion of democracy" and defended its electronic vote system as bullet-proof.

Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, had demanded the proclamation be suspended. He convoked the pot-banging protest and asked supporters to gather outside the electoral council Tuesday

Capriles claimed that members of the military, "an important group in various cities," had been detained for trying to guarantee a free and fair election. He said they had been ordered to ignore abuses they witnessed. Capriles did not offer further details, such as how many were involved.

He said a vote count by his campaign produced "a different result" and it received more than 3,200 complaints of irregularities -- all by pro-government forces. He demanded every single ballot be recounted.

Maduro's campaign manager, Jorge Rodriguez, called Capriles' actions "a coup attempt," while Maduro alleged such a plot was in preparation.

Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said Capriles' goal in demanding the recount without ever uttering the word "fraud" appears to undermine Maduro's legitimacy without provoking a political crisis or jeopardizing his role as opposition leader.

The winner is to be formally inaugurated Friday for a six-year-term.

Maduro said during his victory speech Sunday night. He did not, however, endorse a manual recount of individual ballots.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said a "100 percent audit" of the results would be "an important, prudent and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results."

The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, also called for a "full recount."

Under Venezuela's voting system, 54 percent of the tallies printed out by individual voting machines are routinely audited and that was done Sunday night, Lucena said.

Individual ballots are not included in such audits.

No independent observer teams monitored the election as Chavez's government in recent years has rejected them. Instead it invited witnesses to "accompany the process."

The challenger's camp has not explained how it intends to proceed with the recount demand.

Venezuelan election law does not specify how a recount might proceed or whether a candidate even has the right to demand one, said Dashiell Lopez, coordinator of the independent voting rights group SUMATE.

He said an attempt to carry out a recount in December in Bolivar state failed because it wasn't sought in the legally required seven days.

The logistics alone are daunting.

A total of 39,319 boxes of paper ballot receipts were emitted by Venezuela's electronic voting system Sunday. They are now stored in warehouses under the control of the military. Those receipts would need to be checked against vote count printouts emitted by each individual voting machine. Those results would then be checked with the electoral council's central tally.

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