CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's ruling party moved to cement its grip on power Friday, packing thousands of red-clad supporters into the streets outside the inauguration of late leader Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor, who is battling to establish his own authority.
The crowds were smaller and more subdued than those that turned out for Chavez, however, and the opposition boycotted the swearing-in of President-elect Nicolas Maduro, hoping that the ruling party's last-minute decision to allow an audit of nearly half the vote could change the result in a the bitterly disputed presidential election.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said the audit announced Thursday night will prove he won the presidency. Government officials appear to be confident there will be no reversal of the result by a weeks-long audit that's only slated to begin days after Maduro's swearing-in.
Still, the audit was a sudden reversal for a government that insisted all week that there would be no review of Sunday's vote and took a hard line against the opposition that included allegedly brutal treatment of protesters. The announcement appeared to stem from pressure from some of the South American leaders who held an emergency meeting in Lima, Peru, Thursday night to discuss Venezuela's electoral crisis — and wound up endorsing Maduro's victory.
Even if it leaves the vote standing and calms tensions, the recount will strengthen Venezuela's opposition against a president whose narrow victory left him far weaker than his widely popular predecessor Chavez, analysts said. That will complicate Maduro's effort to consolidate control of a country struggling with shortages of food and medicines, chronic power outages, one of the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates and steep inflation that's around 25 percent and accelerating.
Hundreds of red-clad Chavistas marched through Caracas ahead of the inauguration, shouting and blowing trumpets, led by riders on horseback and even massive bulls yoked in pairs. But the showing, at least by mid-morning, was a faint echo of the rallies that drew tens of thousands to the streets during the Chavez era.
"The most significant thing to emerge from this is the political victory" for the opposition, said Maria Isabel Puerta, a political science professor at the University of Carabobo. "The opposition's role is strengthened and Capriles' leadership is consolidated."
Maduro, 50, was declared the winner of Sunday's election by a slim 267,000-vote margin out of 14.9 million ballots cast. That did not include more than 100,000 votes cast abroad, where more than 90 percent were cast for Capriles in an earlier election against Chavez last October.
Venezuelans voted on computers that issued paper receipts used to confirm the accuracy of the electronic vote. Authorities checked 54 percent of the electronic vote against the paper receipts and registers containing the names, signatures and fingerprints of each voter.
Venezuela's National Electoral Council said just before the start of the meeting in Lima that it would audit 46 percent of the vote not already scrutinized on election night. An electoral official told The Associated Press that the new process, to start next week, would replicate the one from election night.
Capriles has alleged a series of vote irregularities, some of which would be turned up by a new audit, such as charges that there was damage to 3,535 voting machines, representing 189,982 votes, and that voting rolls included 600,000 dead people. He said that many of those irregularities took place in polling locations that weren't audited on election day.
Capriles had demanded a full vote-by-vote recount but said he accepted the ruling.
"We are where we want to be," a satisfied but cautious-looking Capriles told a news conference after the Thursday night announcement. "I think I will have the universe of voters needed to get where I want to be."
Some analysts said the government-controlled recount would almost certainly confirm Maduro's victory and force the opposition to accept it. Others saw the possibility the audit could turn up enough irregularities to throw the election result into question and spawn turmoil.
"It opens a sort of Pandora's box," said Edgar Gutierrez, an independent political analyst in Caracas.
In a declaration released after the 3 1/2-hour meeting, the South American presidents asked "all parties who participated in the election to respect the official results" and said they "took positive note" of the electoral council's audit decision.
Maduro, in a Twitter message, proclaimed the meeting a "great success."
Aura Chacon, a 67-year-old retired nurse, said Chavez's backers would "never let them steal this victory from us. The opposition will never, ever come back into power. We'll push forward with Maduro, and after Maduro other fighters will come, and keep moving forward."
Maduro had never rejected the audit publicly, and it was possible pressure from the military or more moderate members of his ruling clique were a factor. Maduro heads a faction believed to be more radical.
"This is a concession to Capriles, but it is also a way of calling his bluff. It is exceedingly unlikely that such an audit will show a different result," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia.
The so-called Chavistas control all the levers of power in Venezuela, so the electoral council's flip-flop can only be seen as having the government's imprimatur.
A petition to halt Maduro's inauguration had been rejected earlier Thursday by the country's highest court.
The late president, who succumbed to cancer last month after 14 years in power, endeared himself to the poor with generous social spending but, Capriles argued, had put the country with the world's largest oil reserves on the road to ruin.
Capriles, 40, called on his supporters to back down from confrontation and play music, preferably salsa, instead of banging on pots in protest, as they have done nightly all week since the council ratified Maduro's victory.
The man who had been calling Maduro illegitimate and belittling him as incompetent was now saying the inauguration should go forward.
"This government will continue to govern until this thing gets resolved," Capriles said. "It's a history of chapters."
As for the vote count, which will be accompanied by both sides, "we know where the problems are," Capriles said.
Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena said 12,000 voting machines would be audited beginning next week in a process that she said would take a month to complete.
The opposition has been battered for years by Chavez and many of its members say political repression has only increased under Maduro, including the arrests of more than 300 protesters this week for staging marches against the alleged election theft.
In less than two weeks preceding the election, Maduro had squandered a double-digit lead in the polls as Venezuelans upset by the troubled economy, and other social problems turned away from a candidate many considered a poor imitation of the charismatic leader for whom he long served as foreign minister.
No independent international election monitor teams scrutinized the vote, and Capriles said some members of the military had been arrested for trying to prevent abuses.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez, Eduardo Castillo, Christopher Toothaker and Frank Bajak contributed to this report.
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