Shadow cast on Venezuela vote

It says count off by 1 mil­lion in elec­tion to ex­pand pow­ers of assem­bly

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - FABIOLA SANCHEZ AND CHRIS­TINE ARMARIO In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Leonore Schick of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Op­po­si­tion Venezue­lan law­mak­ers shout “fraud” Wed­nes­day at the Na­tional Assem­bly in Caracas af­ter rev­e­la­tions that turnout fig­ures in a vote for a pow­er­ful con­stituent assem­bly were ma­nip­u­lated, with the of­fi­cial vote count in Sun­day’s elec­tion off by at least 1 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a vot­ing-tech­nol­ogy firm.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Rev­e­la­tions on Wed­nes­day that voter turnout fig­ures were ma­nip­u­lated in an elec­tion to ex­pand the pow­ers of a con­stituent assem­bly in Venezuela cast an even longer shadow over the assem­bly hours be­fore it was to con­vene.

The of­fi­cial count of vot­ers in Sun­day’s elec­tion was off by at least 1 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the head of vot­ing-tech­nol­ogy firm Smart­matic. The find­ing sowed fur­ther dis­cord over the body that has been granted author­ity to re­write Venezuela’s con­sti­tu­tion and over­ride every branch of gov­ern­ment.

Re­sults recorded by Smart­matic’s sys­tems and those re­ported by Venezuela’s Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil show “with­out any doubt” that the of­fi­cial turnout of more than 8 mil­lion vot­ers was tam­pered with, the firm’s Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer An­to­nio Mug­ica told re­porters in Lon­don. The in­ter­na­tional soft­ware com­pany has pro­vided vot­ing tech­nol­ogy in Venezuela since 2004.

Mug­ica did not, how­ever, spec­ify whether his com­pany’s fig­ures showed 1 mil­lion fewer, or 1 mil­lion more, vot­ers par­tic­i­pated in the elec­tion.

“Even in mo­ments of deep po­lit­i­cal con­flict and di­vi­sion, we have been sat­is­fied with the vot­ing process and the count has been com­pletely ac­cu­rate,” Mug­ica said. “It is, there­fore, with the deep­est re­gret that we have to re­port that the turnout fig­ures on Sun­day, 30 July, for the con­stituent assem­bly in Venezuela were tam­pered with.”

Tibisay Lu­cena, the head of the Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil, dis­missed Smart­matic’s claim, call­ing it an “opin­ion” of a com­pany that played only a se­condary role in the elec­tion and had no ac­cess to com­plete data.

“A com­pany lo­cated out­side the coun­try does not guar­an­tee the trans­parency and cred­i­bil­ity of the Venezue­lan elec­toral sys­tem,” Lu­cena said.

Smart­matic’s an­nounce­ment drew an im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion from op­po­si­tion lead­ers who have con­tended since Sun­day’s re­sults were an­nounced that the Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil had in­flated the turnout count.

Julio Borges, the pres­i­dent of the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled Na­tional Assem­bly, said law­mak­ers were ask­ing the na­tion’s chief pros­e­cu­tor to in­ves­ti­gate elec­tion com­mis­sion mem­bers for po­ten­tial crimes.

“They are go­ing to in­stall a fraud­u­lent con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly, and no one can say with cer­ti­tude that th­ese peo­ple … were those who won or if they were the prod­uct of a scheme,” Borges said.

De­spite the fraud al­le­ga­tions, prepa­ra­tions pro­ceeded to in­stall the new assem­bly to­day. Around the na­tion, the 545 newly elected del­e­gates, many dressed in the rul­ing so­cial­ist party’s sig­na­ture red, were honored in cer­e­monies and given cer­ti­fi­ca­tions ac­knowl­edg­ing their new pow­ers.

Many paid homage to Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro in ac­cept­ing their posts.

“Long live Ni­co­las!” del­e­gates and sup­port­ers chanted at one such gath­er­ing in the north­ern city of Var­gas.

Even be­fore Smart­matic’s al­le­ga­tions, there were grow­ing doubts over the ve­rac­ity of the Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil’s of­fi­cial vote count of 8 mil­lion. The op­po­si­tion — a siz­able por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion — boy­cotted the vote, and an in­de­pen­dent exit poll con­cluded that fewer than half that num­ber cast bal­lots.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers said counts from ob­servers sta­tioned in each mu­nic­i­pal­ity also sug­gested that the gov­ern­ment’s num­bers were in­flated.

In an elec­tion in which vir­tu­ally all the can­di­dates were sup­port­ers of Maduro’s so­cial­ist party, voter turnout is one of the only indi­ca­tors of how much pop­u­lar sup­port the con­stituent assem­bly might have.

Luis Emilio Ron­don, one of five mem­bers on the elec­toral com­mis­sion and the only one who has sided with the op­po­si­tion, said Tues­day that he had grave doubts about the ac­cu­racy of the vote count, in part be­cause the com­mis­sion had or­dered fewer au­dits than in pre­vi­ous elec­tions. He also said the com­mis­sion did not use per­ma­nent ink to mark vot­ers’ fingers to en­sure that no one voted twice.

The elec­toral coun­cil has pro­vided a to­tal vote count and lists of in­di­vid­ual win­ners but no de­tails on how many votes each per­son re­ceived, or how many votes were cast in each re­gion, as it has in pre­vi­ous elec­tions.

“The con­trols that make our elec­toral sys­tem ro­bust were, by and large, re­laxed — and, in some cases, elim­i­nated,” Ron­don said.

Smart­matic, which sup­plies ser­vices world­wide, was founded by Venezue­lans in Caracas and be­gan pro­vid­ing vot­ing tech­nol­ogy dur­ing the pres­i­dency of the late Hugo Chavez, who in­stalled the na­tion’s cur­rent so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment. In the past, op­po­si­tion mem­bers have ques­tioned the va­lid­ity of re­sults, but the firm has main­tained its im­par­tial­ity.

Luis Vi­cente Leon, pres­i­dent of Datanal­i­sis, a Caracas-based polling agency, called Smart­matic’s find­ings “with­out a doubt the most dev­as­tat­ing pro­nounce­ment yet for the cred­i­bil­ity” of the na­tion’s elec­toral coun­cil.

Maduro called the vote in May af­ter weeks of protests fed by anger at his gov­ern­ment over food short­ages, triple-digit in­fla­tion and high crime. He has ar­gued that the body will help end the vi­o­lence and protests that have left at least 125 dead, while also vow­ing to use the sys­tem to tar­get en­e­mies and so­lid­ify Venezuela as a so­cial­ist state.

Sev­eral of the new del­e­gates are for­mer Maduro Cab­i­net mem­bers who left their posts in or­der to join the assem­bly — and many have been bla­tant in de­scrib­ing the changes they want to make.

Iris Varela, pre­vi­ously chief of Venezuela’s cor­rec­tions sys­tem and a new assem­bly mem­ber, said Wed­nes­day that Luisa Ortega Diaz, the na­tion’s chief pros­e­cu­tor, should face crimes against hu­man­ity. Ortega Diaz broke with the gov­ern­ment in late March af­ter years of al­le­giance to Chavez and later Maduro, and has be­come one of his most out­spo­ken crit­ics.

Dur­ing four months of up­heaval, Ortega Diaz’s of­fice has pro­ceeded with in­ves­ti­gat­ing protesters’ deaths and lev­el­ing charges against mil­i­tary of­fi­cials. She has de­clared the assem­bly un­con­sti­tu­tional and re­fused to rec­og­nize the re­sults.

“You will face jus­tice,” Varela warned Ortega Diaz on state tele­vi­sion broad­casts.

AP/ARI­ANA CU­BIL­LOS

AP/ARI­ANA CU­BIL­LOS

Julio Borges (cen­ter), pres­i­dent of Venezuela’s Na­tional Assem­bly, speaks Wed­nes­day dur­ing a news con­fer­ence prior to the start of a ses­sion of Congress in Caracas, Venezuela. Borges spoke about the vot­ing tech­nol­ogy com­pany Smart­matic, af­ter its CEO said that re­sults of Venezuela’s elec­tion for an all-pow­er­ful con­stituent assem­bly were off by at least 1 mil­lion votes.

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