CARACAS, Venezuela — Rafael Caldera, a political renegade whose campaign was plagued by vague threats of a military coup and U.S. dissatisfaction with his economic policies, appeared to be elected as Venezuela's president Sunday.
Exit polls by the country's television networks indicated that Caldera's promise of honesty and a return to Venezuela's economic golden age of the 1970s had given him about 30% of the vote.
That would be at least 7% more than his closest opponents--radical populist Andres Velasquez of Causa R (Radical Cause), Oswaldo Alvarez Paz of the Social Christian COPEI party and Claudio Fermin of Democratic Action--garnered. They each appeared to have won 20% to 23%.
Ballots were being counted by hand, and official results were not expected until late in the evening.
Caldera, 77, who held the office from 1969 to 1974, was winning even though he abandoned the mainstream COPEI party he founded in 1946. He ran this time as the candidate of a hastily contrived coalition of largely unrelated, even antagonistic, parties.
"If his margin holds up and he wins," one foreign political analyst said, "it will be an amazing display of the public revulsion over traditional politics and politicians."
Caldera's apparent victory marks the first time in the 35 years since Venezuela exchanged military dictatorships for democracy that anyone has won the presidency other than candidates for the traditional ruling parties, Democratic Action and COPEI.
In his campaign, Caldera tried to capitalize on the disgust over reported corruption that drove his elected predecessor, Carlos Andres Perez, from the presidency last spring, and on the public's perception that Perez's free-market policies were beggaring the country. U.S. officials have voiced dissatisfaction with Caldera's rejection of free-market reforms.
But interim President Ramon Velasquez, an independent senator appointed by Congress to serve until Perez's term officially ends Feb. 2, told reporters that the balloting marked a fresh start for the troubled country. He is not related to candidate Andres Velasquez.
Even though Caldera received less than a third of the votes, his apparent margin of victory over 16 other candidates seemed to eliminate the immediate likelihood of a military coup feared by many during the acrid five-month campaign, diplomats and Venezuelan political experts said.
Although Caldera's margin appeared comfortable enough to survive claims of fraud, Velasquez filed complaints of irregularities, saying that officials from his party were prevented from witnessing vote counting.
Still, with 65,000 troops in the streets and few reports of disturbances or significant irregularities, most observers predicted a peaceful outcome, at least for now.
Some diplomats and business leaders also attributed the easing of coup fears to an intense U.S. campaign to persuade the military and other malcontents that any move to reject the election outcome would bring U.S. economic and diplomatic retaliation.
"President Clinton made it clear that Venezuela would suffer if a coup succeeded," said one international businessman, referring to a two-day emergency trip here late last week by senior Latin American experts from the State Department and National Security Council.