Venezuela's electoral council announced Thursday night that it would audit the 46 percent the vote not scrutinized on election night in a concession to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who said he believes it will prove he is the president.
"We are where we want to be," a satisfied but cautious-looking Capriles told a news conference after the announcement. "I think I will have the universe of voters needed to get where I want to be."
Capriles had demanded a full vote-by-vote recount but said he accepted the National Electoral Council's ruling, which marked a surprising turnaround for President-elect Nicolas Maduro, whose government had a day earlier looked to be digging in its heels.The late President Hugo Chavez's heir is being inaugurated on Friday and was in Lima, Peru, on Thursday night for an emergency meeting of South American leaders to discuss his country's electoral crisis.
The meeting began late and it was not clear whether any of the continent's other leaders — Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff wields the most influence — had pressured Maduro to accept the audit.
Capriles ducked the question when asked by an Associated Press reporter for his explanation of the concession.
Maduro had never rejected it publicly, and it was possible that pressure from the military or more moderate members of his ruling clique were a factor.
The so-called Chavistas controls all the levers of power in Venezuela, so the electoral council's decision 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.
Opposition supporters waxed optimistic, even triumphant, on social networks, hoping this could lead to national reconciliation in a bitterly divided nation where half the people have just rejected Chavismo without Chavez, who endeared himself to the poor but who Capriles argued had put the country with the world's largest oil reserves on the road to ruin.
"Maduro isn't sleeping tonight," tweeted Rocio San Miguel, director of an independent group that monitors Venezuela's military.
Capriles, 40, called on his supporters to back down from confrontation and play music, preferably salsa, instead of banging on pots, as they have been nightly all week since the council ratified Maduro's victory to protest what they considered a stolen ballot.
That man who had been calling Maduro illegitimate and belittling him as incompetent was now saying go ahead with the inauguration.
"We know where the problems are," Capriles said, referring to the votes cast in the 12,000 voting machines that council President Tibisay Lucena said would be audited beginning next week and 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 Sunday's alleged election theft.
Capriles said he will insist that every single vote receipt be counted and compared to voter registries as well as to voting machine tally sheets.
In announcing the audit, Lucena did not say whether authorities would do that. But a council spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not permitted to be named, said the audit would be done as Capriles specified.
Venezuela's electronic voting system emits receipts for every ballot that are boxed up with the tally machines. The government says the boxes are in warehouses, guarded by troops.
Maduro 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 elections last October.
He had squandered in less than two weeks a double-digit lead in the polls as Venezuelans upset by a troubled economy, rampant crime, food shortages and worsening power outages turned away from a candidate they considered a poor imitation of the charismatic leader for whom he long served as foreign minister.
Capriles maintains the vote was stolen from him through intimidation and other abuses and presented a long list of abuses including using the threat of violence to force opposition monitors from 283 polling stations, in some cases at gunpoint.
No international election monitors were scrutinizing the vote and Capriles has said that some members of the military were arrested for trying to prevent abuses.
Lucena's announcement seemed a sharp turnaround from a government that has a stranglehold on all state institutions and waged a crackdown on protests all week. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court chief had announced that the full recount Capriles demanded was not legal.
But Capriles said the government would need to prove its sincerity by carrying out the audit in good faith and without subterfuge.
All week, Maduro had been accusing him of trying to mount a coup by dispatching "neo-Nazi gangs" allegedly bankrolled and directed by the United States. His government blamed Capriles for eight deaths and 70 injuries it said were caused by right-wing thugs.
The 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader who was sworn in as acting president after Chavez died last month after a long fight with cancer. He has served Chavez as foreign minister for six years.
"I am not going to be a weak president," Maduro said before flying to Lima. "I am going to be a president with a firm hand against coup plotters, against inefficiency and corruption."
But a leading human rights lawyer said Thursday that Venezuela had this past week seen its worst political repression in six years with the beating by National Guard troops in the western city of Barquisieto of dozens of opposition supporters inside a barracks for refusing to recognize Maduro's victory.
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, Eduardo Castillo and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.
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