Venezuela inflated turnout in controversial vote -election firm

LONDON/CARACAS,  (Reuters) – Venezuela inflated the turnout figures for its constituent assembly election by at least 1 million votes, the company that provides the country’s voting machines said yesterday, an accusation the government quickly dismissed as “irresponsible.”

Earlier in the day Reuters exclusively reported that only 3.7 million people had voted by 5:30 p.m. in Sunday’s poll, according to internal elections data, compared with the total 8.1 million ballots counted by authorities.

Voting ended at 7 p.m., but election experts said doubling the vote in the last hour and a half would be without precedent.

Electronic voting technology firm Smartmatic, which created the voting system that Venezuela has used since 2004, said the turnout figures had been tampered with.

“We know, without any doubt, that the turnout of the recent election for a National Constituent Assembly was manipulated,” said Smartmatic Chief Executive Antonio Mugica in a press briefing in London.

“We estimate the difference between the actual participation and the one announced by authorities is at least 1 million votes,” he said.

The opposition, which boycotted the vote, has dismissed the official tally as fraudulent. A high turnout was seen as crucial for leftist President Nicolas Maduro to legitimize the election in the face of wide international criticism.

Tibisay Lucena, head of Venezuela’s electoral council, said in a televised address that Smartmatic’s only role in Sunday’s vote was to provide technical services and support that gave the London-based company no special insight into the election results.

“This is an irresponsible assertion based on unsupported estimates of data that the elections authority manages exclusively,” Lucena said, adding that Smartmatic’s claim of manipulation was part of efforts to discredit the vote.

She did not refer to the Reuters report.

The opposition in July held an informal plebiscite that it said brought in more than 7 million voters who overwhelmingly rejected the creation of the constituent assembly.

The assembly will have the power to dissolve the opposition-run congress and is expected to sack the country’s chief prosecutor, who has harshly criticized Maduro this year.

Countries around the world have condemned the assembly, which has no legal restrictions on its powers. Critics say the assembly is meant to indefinitely extend Maduro’s rule. He is widely criticized for an economic crisis marked by triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine.

Maduro says the assembly was necessary to give him the powers needed to bring peace to the country after more than four months of opposition protests punctuated by violent clashes between security forces and hooded demonstrators. More than 120 people have been killed since the unrest began in April.

Maduro is due to swear in delegates to the 545-member assembly on Wednesday, with its first session to be held on Thursday.

Congress has promised to continue holding sessions despite the election of the new assembly. Last month it also named alternate justices to the Supreme Court in defiance of the top court, which has heavily favored Maduro.

Authorities arrested three of those justices, and four others have taken refuge in the residence of the Chilean ambassador in Caracas.

Opposition leader Freddy Guevara called for protests on Thursday to prevent delegates to the new assembly from occupying the halls of congress, which the opposition won in a landslide victory in 2015. “Now is a time for action, not words,” he said.

The United States this week called Maduro a dictator, froze his U.S. assets, and barred Americans from doing business with him. The European Union said it was mulling a “whole range of actions” on Venezuela.

Maduro, like his predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, regularly laughs off criticism from Washington even though the United States is Venezuela’s top crude importer.

He continues to enjoy public backing from the Venezuela’s military, though soldiers are increasingly weary of the popular backlash against their role in quelling protests.

Though the Trump administration has discussed creating sanctions that would hit the country’s oil sector, those plans have remained on hold as officials review the potential impact on U.S. energy markets and refining companies.

Oil workers loyal to Maduro rallied in several energy producing regions of the country on Wednesday.

Chanting and carrying the red Socialist Party flag, they denounced sanctions on the leftist president.

“We are here to show our rejection of the intervention of the United States,” one demonstrator said during a televised rally, calling the sanctions “a political show with harmful economic consequences for the people of Venezuela.”


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