Vote tampering claims jolt Venezuela on eve of new assembly

CARACAS, Venezuela — Revelations on Wednesday that turnout figures were apparently manipulated in a crucial vote for an all-powerful constituent assembly in Venezuela cast an even longer shadow over the controversial body 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 the voting technology firm Smartmatic — a finding certain to sow further discord over a body that has been granted vast 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 figure of more than 8 million voters was tampered with, company CEO Antonio Mugica told reports in London. The international software company has provided voting technology in Venezuela since 2004.

He 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.”

The revelation 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 quickly install the new assembly on Thursday. Around the nation, the 545 newly elected delegates, many dressed in the ruling socialist party’s signature red, were honoured 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.

Tibisay Lucena, the head of the National Electoral Council, dismissed Smartmatic’s voter tampering 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,” she said.

Even before Smartmatic’s allegations, there were growing doubts over the veracity of the National Electoral Council’s official turnount count of 8 million. The opposition — a sizeable portion of the population — boycotted the vote, and an independent exit poll concluded that less than half that number cast ballots. Opposition leaders said counts from observers stationed in each municipality also suggested 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 who has sided with the opposition, said Tuesday 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 it did not use permanent ink to mark voters’ fingers to ensure no one votes 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.

Mugica said his company’s automated election system is designed to show when results are manipulated but requires that a large number of auditors participate, from both the ruling socialist and opposition parties, which he said did not happen during Sunday’s vote.

“This would not have occurred if the auditors of all political parties had been present at every stage of the election,” he 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 the use the system to target enemies and solidify Venezuela as a socialist state.

Despite the unrest and plummeting popularity ratings, Maduro appears to have maintained the full support of the country’s most important institutions, notably the armed forces. Top military figures have been given special status and are scattered throughout the government. They also are in charge of strategic areas such as food distribution in which Venezuelans say bribery is widespread.

A number 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 out his most outspoken critics.

During four months of upheaval, her office has proceeded with investigating protester deaths and levelling 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.


Leonore Schick reported from London.


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Fabiola Sanchez And Christine Armario, The Associated Press


Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Julio Borges, center, President of Venezuela’s National Assembly speaks during a news conference prior the start of a session of Congress in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday. 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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