CARACAS, Venezuela - A triumphant President Hugo Chavez declared Monday that he had beaten back an effort to recall him, and he vowed to press forward with leftist policies that have stirred fierce opposition at home and irritated the U.S. government.
The opposition coalition that had campaigned to oust Chavez appeared stunned by the results and alleged the government had committed fraud. About 58 percent of participants voted "No" to a recall of Chavez, according to official returns, with 94 percent of the vote counted.
"It's absolutely impossible that the victorious tendency of the 'No' is reversed," Chavez proclaimed from the balcony of the presidential palace, to a giant, flag-waving crowd
A record number of voters waited up to 10 hours at polling stations to cast ballots in the referendum, an effort to end a three-year crisis between Chavez and his opponents that has flared into periodic violence, including a 2002 coup attempt. The results were watched closely outside Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
Early Monday opposition leaders said they would collect evidence of fraud. They said the result was dramatically different from their own exit polls showing an opposition victory.
"We categorically and absolutely reject these results," said Henry Ramos Allup, a leader of the Democratic Coordinator, a coalition of opposition parties. "The National Election Council has committed a giant fraud."
However, an international team of observers, led by former president Jimmy Carter and Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), said late Sunday that the vote had appeared fair.
Carter endorsed the results on Monday.
"Our findings coincided with the partial returns announced today by the National Elections Council," Carter told a news conference.
Chavez insisted throughout the campaign that the opposition was funded by the Bush administration, a charge U.S. officials denied.
"Hopefully, from this day on Washington will respect the government and people of Venezuela," Chavez declared from the balcony.
The referendum was the culmination of years of efforts by the opposition to oust Chavez, a charismatic former army officer who swept into office in 1998 pledging to replace the country's scandal-tainted two-party system with a government catering to the poor.
Chavez is a hero to many of the country's destitute. But critics, who include many in the middle and upper classes, accuse him of ruling in an inept, authoritarian style and fomenting class hatred.
The significance of the vote goes well beyond Venezuela. This South American country is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States and has been a traditional U.S. ally. But the Bush administration has been irked by Chavez's close ties to Cuban President Fidel Castro and his support for left-wing movements in the hemisphere. Chavez, in turn, has been deeply suspicious of the Bush administration since it quickly recognized the coup in April 2002 that briefly deposed him.
Chavez, 50, voted in western Caracas on Sunday and promised to accept the results of the referendum.
"All those who were saying the dictator Chavez wouldn't agree to a vote. ... Well, here's the proof," the president said.
Chavez has vowed that if he lost the recall, he would be a candidate in elections that would be triggered within 30 days.
Chavez supporters as well as opponents warned before the referendum that they would not accept the results if there was fraud, raising fears of violence or a disruption of oil exports. The slow pace of voting, caused mainly by mechanical delays in the scanning of fingerprints outside the voting booths, fanned concerns of irregularities, both among voters and opposition activists.
"We want to vote! We want to vote!" chanted citizens at polling stations in Caracas and other cities.
The balloting was mostly peaceful, except for an incident in Caracas in which a gunman opened fire on voters, killing a 28-year-old woman and injuring 12 others, news services reported.