Embattled socialist incumbent Nicolas Maduro won Venezuela’s presidential election by a landslide in a disputed vote marred by irregularities and mass absenteeism that led his main rivals to call for a re-run to prevent a national social crisis from exploding. The National Election Council announced that with more than 92 percent of polling stations reporting, Maduro won nearly 68 percent of the votes Sunday, beating his nearest challenger Henri Falcon by more than 40 points. As the results were being announced, residents of downtown Caracas just a few blocks from where Maduro supporters were celebrating banged on pots and pans in protest.
Falcon accused the government of buying votes and dirty tricks to boost turnout among poor voters most hurt by widespread food shortages and hyperinflation in what was once Latin America’s wealthiest nation. The election “without any doubt lacks legitimacy and we categorically refuse to recognize this process,” Falcon told supporters minutes before the results were announced, vowing to fight on instead of joining a growing list of beleaguered anti-government politicians who’ve fled into exile of late.
The disputed victory is likely to heighten international pressure on Maduro. Even as voting was taking place Sunday, a senior US official said the Trump administration might press ahead on threats of imposing crippling oil sanctions and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned “sham elections change nothing.” Falcon was joined in his demand for a new election by third-place finisher Javier Bertucci, who won around 11 percent of the vote. Bertucci, a TV evangelist who handed out soup at his campaign rallies, stopped short of challenging the results, partly blaming what he called a mistaken opposition boycott that led to a turnout of around 46 percent — the lowest in a presidential race in two decades of revolution. But he said he nonetheless favors a new election soon and urged Maduro to do the courageous thing and desist from running. If Maduro presses forward, he warned, Venezuela will explode before his new six-year term is scheduled to begin in January.
A social crisis years in the making has worsened as Venezuela’s oil production — the source of almost all of its foreign income — has collapsed to the lowest level in decades and financial sanctions by the Trump administration has made it impossible for the government to renegotiate its debts.
More than 1 million people have fled the country in the past two years and 14,000 percent inflation has crushed the minimum wage to less than $2 a month. Maduro, 55, immediately called for dialogue with his opponents and put the best face forward on what analysts said were nonetheless disappointing results underscoring how vulnerable his hold on power remains.
Despite energetic campaigning his overall vote haul slipped by 1.6 million from 2013, when he was first elected after Hugo Chavez’s death from cancer. But he showed no sign of replaying Sunday’s vote. “We will be the most powerful and largest political force in Venezuela for a long time,” he told a festive crowd of die-hard supporters who poured into the grounds of the presidential palace to celebrate. “It doesn’t faze me when they say I’m a dictator.” (AP)