Shadow cast on Venezuela vote
It says count off by 1 million in election to expand powers of assembly
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.
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.