Caracas - Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, won a thin victory in Sunday's special presidential election, edging the opposition's leader by only about 300 000 votes, electoral officials announced.
Maduro's close victory over Henrique Capriles came after a campaign in which the winner promised to carry on Chavez's self-proclaimed socialist revolution while the challenger's main message was that Chavez's 14-year regime put Venezuela on the road to ruin.
Maduro, acting president since Chavez's death, held a double-digit advantage in opinion polls just two weeks ago, but electoral officials said he got just 50.7% of the votes to 49.1% for Capriles with nearly all ballots counted.
Chavistas set off fireworks and blasted car horns as they cruised downtown Caracas in jubilation.
At Capriles' campaign headquarters, people hung their heads quietly as the results were announced by an electoral council stacked with government loyalists. Many started crying; others just stared at TV screens in disbelief.
"I can't believe this. This can't be happening. The votes should all be recounted to be 100% sure who won," said Jenny Morales, aged 26, a volunteer who handed out posters and leaflets during the campaign.
The mood lightened after another electoral council director, Vicente Diaz, proposed an audit of the vote.
Maduro refuses ‘pact’
There was no immediate word from Capriles, but Maduro addressed a crowd from the presidential palace after winning a six-year term. In a booming voice, he called his victory further proof that Chavez "continues to be invincible, that he continues to win battles."
He said that Capriles had called him before the results were announced to suggest a "pact" and that Maduro refused.
Maduro, a longtime foreign minister to Chavez, rode a wave of sympathy for the charismatic leader to victory, pinning his hopes on the immense loyalty for his boss among millions of poor beneficiaries of government largesse and the powerful state apparatus that Chavez skillfully consolidated.
Capriles' main campaign weapon was to simply emphasise "the incompetence of the state" in handling the world's largest oil reserves.
Analyst David Smilde at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank predicted the victory would prove pyrrhic and make Maduro extremely vulnerable.
"It will make people in his coalition think that perhaps he is not the one to lead the revolution forward," Smilde said.
In a hint of discontent within Chavista ranks, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who many consider Maduro's main rival, expressed dismay at the tight outcome.
He tweeted: "The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism. It's contradictory that the poor sectors of the population vote for their long-time exploiters."
Millions of Venezuelans were lifted out of poverty under Chavez, but many also believe his government not only squandered, but plundered, much of the $1 trillion in oil revenues during his tenure.