CARACAS, Venezuela – In a surprise concession, just hours before Venezuela's presidential inauguration the electoral council said it will audit 46 percent of the votes cast in last week's election, the closest in the country's history.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said the audit will prove that he won the presidency.
Capriles had demanded a full vote-by-vote recount but said he accepted the National Electoral Council's ruling, which marked a surprising turnabout for President-elect Nicolas Maduro, whose socialist government had a day earlier looked to be digging in its heels.
The electoral council had earlier audited 54 percent of the vote, which they said proved that Maduro won the election by a slim majority. But Capriles believed that an audit of the remaining 46 percent of the vote would prove he was the victor.
"We are where we want to be," Capriles told a news conference after the Thursday night announcement. "I think I will have the universe of voters needed to get where I want to be."
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.
In a declaration released after the 3 1/2-hour meeting, the South American presidents asked "all parties who participated in the election to respect the official results" and said they "took positive note" of the electoral council's audit decision.
Maduro, in a Twitter message, proclaimed the meeting a "great success."
"Complete support for the people and democracy of Venezuela," Maduro continued. "Thank you South America! I await you in Caracas."
Maduro had never rejected the audit publicly, and it was possible pressure from the military or more moderate members of his ruling clique were a factor. Maduro heads a faction believed to be more radical.
The so-called Chavistas control 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.
The late president, who succumbed to cancer last month after 14 years in power, endeared himself to the poor but, Capriles argued, had put the country with the world's largest oil reserves on the road to ruin with poor husbandry
Capriles, 40, called on his supporters to back down from confrontation and play music, preferably salsa, instead of banging on pots in protest, as they have been nightly all week since the council ratified Maduro's victory.
The man who had been calling Maduro illegitimate and belittling him as incompetent was now saying go ahead with the inauguration.
"This government will continue to govern until this thing gets resolved," Capriles said. "It's a history of chapters."
As for the vote count, which will be accompanied by both sides, "we know where the problems are," Capriles said.
He was referring to votes cast in the 12,000 voting machines that council President Tibisay Lucena said would be audited beginning next week in a process that she said 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.
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.
In less than two weeks preceding the election, Maduro had squandered 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 many considered a poor imitation of the charismatic leader for whom he long served as foreign minister.
Capriles maintains victory was stolen from him through intimidation and other abuses and presented a list that included using the threat of violence to force opposition monitors from 283 polling stations, in some cases at gunpoint.
No independent international election monitor teams scrutinized the vote, and Capriles said some members of the military had been arrested for trying to prevent abuses.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.