CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez (search) survived a referendum to oust him, according to results Monday, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (search) and other election observers urged the opposition to accept the vote, deflating claims of fraud.
The victory stunned opposition figures who have fought for years to oust and will likely give Chavez an even broader mandate for his "revolution for the poor." Chavez is seen as a hero by Venezuela's majority poor but as an authoritarian by his critics, particularly among the wealthy.
Though the opposition swiftly rejected the results, saying they were fraudulent, Carter and the head of the Organization of American States (search), who led observer teams, said the voting appeared clean.
Carter said the partial results announced Monday morning by election officials showing a wide margin of victory for Chavez "coincided" with his own team's findings.
"Now it's the responsibility of all Venezuelans to accept the results and work together for the future," he said.
OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria said observers "have not found any element of fraud in the process." The State Department also said there was no evident pattern of fraud in the balloting but a final judgment depends on what observers report.
The first-ever recall vote for a president in Venezuela's history was aimed at putting a lid on years of violent political unrest and a bloody coup, and it came after a lengthy and complicated petitioning process.
"Venezuela has changed forever," Chavez said in a victory speech after the results were announced. "There is no turning back."
He also claimed repeatedly that opposition leaders were pawns of President Bush."Hopefully, from this day on Washington will respect the government and people of Venezuela," Chavez boomed from a palace balcony.
With 94 percent of the votes counted, Chavez had 58 percent of the vote and the opposition 42 percent, according to Francisco Carrasquero, president of the National Elections Council. But Carrasquero stopped short of declaring Chavez the outright winner.
Carrasquero said 4,991,483 votes were cast against recalling the former army paratrooper, and 3,576,517 in favor.
There was no immediate opposition reaction to the comments by Carter and Gaviria. Earlier, opposition leaders refused to accept the results and demanded a manual recount, claiming their own exit polls showed almost 60 percent of citizens voted to oust Chavez.
At opposition headquarters in Caracas, opponents watching Carrasquero's announcement on television shouted, "Fraud! Fraud!"
"We categorically and absolutely reject these results," said Henry Ramos Allup, leader of the Democratic Coordinator coalition of opposition parties. "The National Elections Council has committed a gigantic fraud."
Haydee Deutsch, an opposition leader, said the opposition "has no doubt that we won by an overwhelming majority."
Indicating a possible split in the five-member elections council, Sobella Mejia — who is aligned with the opposition — told a news conference before the tallies were announced that any release of partial figures would be premature and invalid.
News of Chavez's victory drove down crude oil prices from record highs Monday, easing fears of a disruption in supply from the world's fifth-largest oil exporter. Venezuela (search) is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and normally supplies almost 15 percent of U.S. imports.
September crude futures were trading at $46.45 per barrel Monday morning, down from a record $46.90 earlier in the day in after-hours electronic trading at the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Venezuela's oil industry suffered no disruptions during the vote and exports were "completely normal" Monday, said officials with the state oil company PDVSA. Chavez promised "stability in the oil market."
Venezuelans could either vote "yes" to recall Chavez or "no" to allow him to serve out the remainder of a six-year term that began in 2000.
For Chavez to lose, there had to be more "yes" than "no" votes and more "yes" votes than the nearly 3.8 million votes he received in the 2000 presidential elections.
With more than 8.5 million votes cast, Sunday's referendum shattered the previous record of voter turnout, when 7.5 million Venezuelans cast ballots in the 1988 presidential elections.
Activists from both sides urged voters to the polls, but they needed little pushing. Venezuelans tend to love or hate Chavez, 50, with sentiment drawn along class lines.
Chavez is a champion among the majority poor for freely spending on social programs with Venezuela's oil revenues. But his vilification of the rich and close ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro (search) made him many enemies among the wealthy.
The sheer number of voters, coupled with problems with electronic thumbprint ID machines, led election officials to twice postpone the polls' closing to midnight — eight hours later than originally scheduled. They then said the polling stations would be kept open until everyone in line voted.