LA VICTORIA, Venezuela — Marcos Oropeza is sure that Henrique Capriles Radonski won Sunday, April 14's presidential election; Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) says otherwise.
"The council allowed the government to steal the election," says Oropeza, 34, a heavy-equipment operator in the north-central state of Aragua. "They turned a blind eye to [acting President Nicolás] Maduro and his use of state funds during the campaign, and they turned a blind eye to the constant propaganda that flowed on the state television station. And now they say that Capriles lost? I have my doubts, and I am sure there are millions of people like me."
Maduro won the snap election -- called following the March 5 death of Hugo Chávez, who had himself won reelection over Capriles in October 2012 -- with 7.505 million votes, or 50.7 percent. Capriles, who polls had trailing far behind Maduro, racked up 7.270 million, or 49.1 percent, according to the CNE. But Capriles immediately called foul and said he wouldn't accept the results unless the agency undertook a full audit.
"We are not going to recognize the results until every vote is counted," said Capriles after the CNE released preliminary results. "The people's voice is sacred and needs to be respected. The people's will is everything."
At least one CNE board member, Vicente Díaz, also called for a full recount, citing irregularities during the vote ranging from intimidation to posting campaign posters too close to ballot sites. The unfolding impasse promises to plunge Venezuela into its worst political crisis since a 2004 recall vote against Chávez resulted in almost a yearlong governmental and economic paralysis.
"This is the worst possible political scenario," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. "Maduro is facing doubts about his legitimacy and is going to face challenges from both within and outside his political base."
That's bad news for Venezuela, which is suffering through a grim economic malaise though it sits atop the world's largest oil reserves. Politically, the country is polarized into roughly two equal parts, each diametrically opposed to each other.
"I think Maduro won, but I can't be sure," says Jose Luis Tinaco, 38, a computer technician in Caracas who voted for Maduro. "I thought he would have won by hundreds of thousands of votes. Instead, he just managed to get by, and who knows what he did to win. I really wonder what is going to happen now."
Maduro's poor showing surprised many. At the start of the campaign, the mustachioed former bus driver was thought to be invincible. Not only did he have access to the government's financial resources, but he also had Chávez's political party mechanism firmly behind him.