CARACAS: President Nicolas Maduro was unsurprisingly declared winner of Venezuela’s election Sunday in a poll rejected as invalid by his rivals, who called for fresh elections to be held later this year.
Reeling under a devastating economic crisis, only 46 per cent of voters turned out to cast ballots in an election boycotted by the opposition and condemned by much of the international community, but one which hands Maduro a second six-year term.
“We do not recognize this electoral process as valid, as true,” his main rival Henri Falcon told a news conference, even before the result was announced.
“For us, there were no elections. We have to have new elections in Venezuela.”
Maduro hailed his victory as a “historic record” in a speech to thousands of cheering supporters outside the official Miraflores Palace in Caracas.
“Never before has a presidential candidate taken 68 per cent of the popular vote,” he said, to applause.
The official result gave Maduro 67.7 per cent of the vote, with Falcon a distant second with 21.2 percent. In the last opinion polls before the vote, the pair were running neck-and-neck.
Falcon said fresh elections could be held in November or December, when they are traditionally contested. Maduro’s government had them brought forward by several months, which sparked international condemnation and prompted the boycott by the main opposition.
Maduro, the political heir to the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has presided over an implosion of once wealthy oil producer Venezuela’s economy since taking office in 2013.
Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime and broken water, power and transportation networks have sparked violent unrest, and left Maduro with a 75 percent disapproval rating.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the South American country in a mass exodus in recent years.
Wearing a bright red shirt that identifies him as a “Chavista,” the president arrived early at a Caracas polling station along with his wife, former prosecutor Cilia Flores.
“Your vote decides: ballots or bullets, motherland or colony, peace or violence, independence or subordination,” said the 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader.
The comments reflected previous statements by the socialist leader that Venezuela is the victim of an “economic war” waged by the conservative opposition and outside powers such as the United States aimed at toppling him.
As the polls opened, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the election as a “sham”.
Small queues of voters, mostly Maduro supporters, formed at some polling stations, but others appeared half empty, AFP correspondents reported from several cities.
Falcon, a 56-year-old former army officer who failed to gain the endorsement of the main opposition, accused the government of coercing voters.
In a news conference held before the official result announcement, he pointed particularly to so-called “red points” - street stalls set up by the ruling Socialists near polling stations - allegedly to offer handouts in exchange for votes.
Falcon said “12,711 red points were installed throughout the country,” representing 87 percent of polling stations.
The former governor of Venezuela’s Lara state also said polling centers had remained open after the scheduled closing time, and that his monitors were expelled from some of them.
Hundreds of Venezuelans took to the streets in several Latin American capitals, including Bogota, Lima and Buenos Aires - as well as in Madrid - to denounce the vote.
The biggest protest was in Chile’s capital Santiago, where more than 1,000 demonstrated against the election. Chile granted 73,000 visas to Venezuelans fleeing the country last year.
‘A dog’s life’
“I am not taking part in this fraud,” said retired teacher Maria Barrantes, 62. “What we are living through is a disaster.”
Maritza Palencia, 58, said she would vote for “change,” adding that her four sons had “fled” to Colombia to earn a better living.
“For the first time in my life, I am not going to vote because we are living a dog’s life, without medicine, without food,” said Teresa Paredes, a 56-year-old housewife.
But Rafael Manzanares, 53 and living on government handouts, said he believed Maduro’s claim that “things are bad because of the economic war” against the country.
Aware of the popular mood, Maduro vowed an “economic revolution” if reelected.
Falcon promised to dollarize the economy, return companies expropriated by Chavez and allow humanitarian aid, something the president rejects.
Presidential elections are traditionally held in December, but they were moved up this year by the country’s all-powerful and pro-government Constituent Assembly, catching the divided and weakened opposition off-guard.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition has won support from the United States, the European Union and 14 countries of the Lima Group who have called for the vote to be postponed.
Maduro is accused of undermining democracy, usurping the power of the opposition-dominated legislature by replacing it with his Constituent Assembly and cracking down hard on the opposition. Protests in 2017, still fresh in the collective memory, left around 125 people dead.
The MUD’s most popular leaders have been sidelined or detained, the boycott their only remaining weapon.
Despite holding the world’s largest oil reserves, the country faces ruin, with the IMF citing a drop of 45.0 percent in GDP since Maduro took over in 2013.
The crippled oil industry lacks investment and its assets are increasingly prey to debt settlements as the country defaults.