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Maduro Wins Venezuela's Election With 51% of Votes

Luis Costa | AFP | Getty Images

Nicolas Maduro, the handpicked successor of late leader Hugo Chavez, squeezed out a small-margin victory in Venezuela's presidential elections Sunday, securing the ruling socialist party's control over the oil-rich nation through 2019.

Maduro took 7.5 million votes, or 50.66%, while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles received 7.27 million, or 49.07%, electoral authorities reported Sunday night after counting more than 99% of the votes.

Tibisay Lucena, head of the National Electoral Council said around 78% of Venezuela's nearly 19 million registered voters participated in the election.

Calling himself Chavez's son, the 50-year-old former bus driver and union boss ran a hectic nationwide campaign promising to extend the leftist policies championed by his mentor.

Chavez ruled the South American country for 14 years until his death on March 5 from cancer complications. He cultivated a cult-like following among Venezuela's many poor as he used petrodollars to expand social programs that handed out food and built houses for shanty dwellers. At the same time, he increased the state's role in the economy and society, expropriated property and choked the private sector.

(Read More: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Has Died, VP Says)

Maduro had led by a comfortable, double-digit-point margin in most polls ahead of the vote as many expected him to ride Mr. Chavez's popularity and personal endorsement to victory. But the margin of his win came in far tighter than expected, raising questions over whether Mr. Maduro will be able to rule going forward.

Maduro invoked his predecessor's legacy throughout his campaign, using Chavez's name in public appearances more than 180 times a day on average since his death, according to Madurodice.com, a website that has been tracking the references.

But the tall and mustachioed former foreign minister will have the challenge of navigating through a flurry of problems facing the nation, including a struggling oil industry, a shaky power grid, crumbling roads, a growing government fiscal deficit, as well as one of the region's worst homicide and inflation rates.

Inflation, seen hitting 30% this year by some economists, eats into Venezuelans' earnings and gives little incentive to save. Locals are also grappling with a recent currency devaluation that makes them poorer by international standards and face frequent shortages of foods and basic consumer goods due to dollar controls that limit access to hard currency and price controls that have starved domestic production.

(Watch This: Business as Usual in Venezuela: Expert - CNBC)

However, resolving those issues could prove a tough task for Maduro, who may need to maintain social spending in order to consolidate power among his base. That means the government will have to seek ways to raise revenue at a time when they're are posting widening fiscal deficits, despite high international oil prices.

Economists say another currency devaluation could shore up the state's finances but that again would stoke inflation and weigh on the pocketbooks of the poor.

Just last week, Maduro promised that he would raise the monthly minimum wage three times later this year if he won the vote, bringing it up some 45% to as much as VEF2971 ($471). He said the wage hikes would help workers cope with rising costs but that measure is seen only contributing to the inflationary cycle.

But some economists say that despite the tough talk, issues like high inflation and shortages could force Maduro on to a more pragmatic path, including expanding a recent system to auction dollars for companies--a move that would loosen currency controls. Others say any such move might cause tensions within the ruling party.

(Watch This: Can Venezuela's Maduro Turn Round the Economy? - CNBC)

"I see him being a bit more pragmatic," said Venezuelan economist Asrubal Oliveiros. "They have room to maneuver; what limits them is their ideology."

Chavez beat Capriles in October by 11 percentage points, taking 8.1 million votes, or 55%. Despite the wide margin, Capriles had put forth the greatest challenge yet faced by the populist leader, who had reduced public appearances as he battled an undisclosed type of cancer.

In the December 2006 election, Chavez received 62% of votes while contender Manuel Rosales held 36.9%.