Venezuela’s Constitution-Vote Count Disputed by Opposition

from The Wall Street Journal,

Opponents warn new assembly will lead to a dictatorship; Trump administration won’t recognize vote.

President Nicolás Maduro’s government said more than eight million people had voted Sunday to give his administration overwhelming powers to redraft the constitution, an outcome that opposition leaders called fraudulent and that the Trump administration said it wouldn’t recognize. The results were announced on state television by Tibisay Lucena, head of the National Electoral Council, near midnight on Sunday, timing that minimized unrest in a country that has been whipsawed by antigovernment demonstrations. Hours later, on Monday morning, government opponents called the outcome fraudulent and promised more protests in the Venezuelan capital. “This is no longer just a crisis. It’s chaos,” said Julio Borges, the head of the opposition-led congress. On a violent day of voting, the attorney general’s office said that 10 people were killed in clashes between protesters and the state security forces, for a total of 123 deaths since a steady stream of protests began in April in this tumultuous country of 31 million. “Peace won. When peace wins, Venezuela wins,” said Ms. Lucena, summing up the vote. “It was a result that was so big, so surprising.” Mr. Maduro, speaking to followers after the announcement, asserted that it was the best result obtained by the Socialist government in its 18 years in power, despite the country undergoing its deepest economic crisis ever, punctuated by food shortages and fast-rising poverty levels. He also lashed out at his critics, threatening to end the immunity from prosecution that lawmakers in congress enjoy and take over rival institutions, like the office of Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a loyalist turned critic. Mr. Maduro also said he would force the opposition to sit down for negotiations through a commission his government will set up. And if his adversaries don’t participate, he said, then long-suspended state elections for state governors wouldn’t be held.

“Some will end up in a jail cell,” Mr. Maduro said of his opponents.

Mr. Maduro’s plans for the election—asking his supporters to choose the delegates for an assembly to write a new constitution that would give the government boundless powers—had drawn scorn from many Venezuelans and condemnation from governments in Europe and the Americas, including the U.S. The Trump administration had been considering options to increase the cost on the Maduro government, including a range of economic sanctions. “We will continue to take strong and swift actions against the architects of authoritarianism in Venezuela,” Heather Nauert, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said Sunday night.

The voting process didn’t include electoral observers, and safeguards to prevent people from voting multiple times weren’t in place. The results were a foregone conclusion, since voters had been asked to choose 545 delegates from 6,000 candidates handpicked by the ruling party. But the government wanted millions of voters to lend validity to Mr. Maduro’s plans and outnumber the 7.5 million voters the opposition said voted against the so-called constituent assembly in an unauthorized referendum on July 16. The result announced by Ms. Lucena appeared to conflict with the turnout at polling sites in cities and in the surveys done by various polling companies. Reporters from The Wall Street Journal who visited more than 50 polling stations in Caracas and Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-biggest city, saw short lines and, in some cases, sites that were either empty or that had attracted only a handful of voters.

Pollster Datanalisis said before the election that just 2.5 million of the 19 million registered voters were very open to voting, while an exit poll conducted Sunday by the pollster Innovarium for the investment firm Torino Capital estimated that 3.6 million had participated. Past elections in Venezuela have drawn 70% of registered voters.

“I didn’t want to vote, but in my house they were going to take away [the benefits],” said Ms. Castillo. “What could I do? I need the [food], we all need it.” ... it was clear that coercion was among the tools used by the state to generate votes. Outside polling stations, Socialist Party activists scanned each voter’s ID card to keep a list of participation. After lunch, party officials began to visit the houses of the abstainers to remind them of the food subsidies from the government and push them to vote. “We got to add pressure,” local Socialist party chief Reinaldo Samarca shouted to his aides, in order to boost the turnout as he drove around the voting centers. In Maracaibo, buses dropped off voters at polling stations, where residents were given food. Yuber Marín, a 23-year-old who just got a job for a company that provides transportation to state oil firm Petróleos de Venezuela, said he received a call from company managers early Sunday to go vote. “They told me that if I didn’t vote, I’d be fired,” he said. Those tactics—and the flouting of the constitution, which requires a referendum among other steps to permit a constituent assembly—led the Trump administration to move against Mr. Maduro last week. Thirteen high officials in the Venezuelan government were sanctioned. U.S. assets that they might own were ordered frozen and visas were revoked. American citizens and institutions are prohibited from doing business with them.

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