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A roar of protest envelops Venezuela as opposition calls for vote recount

The sound of bursting fireworks competed with the cacophony of clanging pots and pans here last night, marking the second day of protests over last weekend’s presidential election results.

Supporters of President-elect Nicolás Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles sought to use the fireworks and kitchen utensils to drown each other out peacefully across the city following post-election-related violence that left 61 people injured and seven dead this week.

Tensions have been steadily rising since Sunday when the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that Mr. Maduro’s margin of victory over Mr. Capriles was less than 2 percent. Capriles’s campaign has publicly contested the election results, citing some 3,200 irregularities in the count and demanding a full audit.

“What are they afraid of?” screamed David Alvarez, a student and one of dozens of protestors in the upscale Plaza Altamira last night demanding a recount. Taking a pause from blowing into a horn, he continued, “We’re not afraid of losing, we just want to know the truth.”

Although Altamira leans heavily towards Capriles, protests have erupted in some bastions formerly held by the late President Hugo Chávez. And while the government continues to refuse a recount, many believe the prolonged crisis could have serious repercussions for the Maduro presidency, which lacks the same mandate frequently won by Mr. Chávez and faces a clearly split country. 

The president of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena, refused Capriles’s requests on Monday, saying that the electoral system worked perfectly and that some 54 percent of the votes had already been audited. “There they are, we won’t deal with harassment, threats, or intimidation. The Constitution or the law are the only routes respected by true democrats,” she said.

“It’s a radical, inadequate, clumsy position. Instead of calming [the country] they’re inciting national polarization,” says pollster Luis Vicente Leon, president of the polling firm Datanalisis, referring to the Maduro administration’s stance. “[The government] is facing off against almost half the population…and if it continues to not recognize its legitimacy, in the midst of an economic crisis, [Maduro] could face losing his [base of] popular support.”

Tuesday was filled with a heated exchange of broadcasts. Capriles held two press conferences and Maduro, three. Both sides pinned blame on the other for widespread unrest across the country. At one point, Maduro used the national broadcast system to cut into one of Mr. Capriles conferences.

“Here we don’t negotiate with the bourgeoisie. Here there is revolution,” said Maduro in a national television address. “And if [the opposition] continues with violence, I am ready to radicalize the revolution.”

Maduro told his supporters to light fireworks and prohibited a planned opposition protest march scheduled for Wednesday in Caracas, calling it “a chronicle of a coup foretold.”

The president-elect’s increasingly harsh rhetoric and hard-line stance is seen by some as an attempt to consolidate power now that his party is faced with the absence of the charismatic Chávez.

“He’s trying to occupy a position that’s not his,” says Eloy Torres, a political science professor at Santa María University and a former Chávez administration diplomat who long worked under Maduro when he was foreign minister.

Mr. Torres, who says he has been taken aback by Maduro’s tone since election results came in, adds that rather than resolving the conflict “he’s pouring gasoline on the fire.”

Capriles in a press conference yesterday told Maduro to “calm down a bit.” Fearing potential future clashes, Capriles called off a march scheduled for today in favor of further cacerolazos – the popular Latin American protest involving the banging of pots and pans. “Whoever is involved in violence is not part of this project, is not with me,” he said at a news conference.

While it remains to be seen if it can hold steam, Capriles seems intent on continuing his campaign for a recount. Analysts say that regardless of the outcome, the efforts present serious difficulties for the future of Maduro’s presidency.

Maduro faces an uncertain future, says Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela. Mr. Romero points to similar scenario in 2000 in Peru when then-President Alberto Fujimori was forced to resign, or in the case of the 2006 Mexico election, when then-President Felipe Calderón managed to survive a recount but then faced political strife when his opponent refused to recognize the results.

“You can’t say where the Venezuelan case is going to go, the only thing we can say is that unexpectedly close results like this bring more problems,” says Romero.

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