Embattled socialist incumbent Nicolas Maduro has 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.
The National Election Council announced that with more than 92% of polling stations reporting, Mr Maduro won nearly 68% of the votes Sunday, beating his nearest challenger Henri Falcon by more than 40 points.
As the results were being announced, residents of Caracas protested just a few blocks from where Mr Maduro’s supporters were celebrating. Mr 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 recognise this process”, Mr Falcon told supporters minutes before the results were announced.
He vowed 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 Mr Maduro. Even as voting was taking place on 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”.
A coalition of 14 nations from throughout the Americas, including Brazil, Mexico and Colombia announced they would not recognise the result and pledged to ramp up diplomatic and economic pressure on Venezuela.
The Lima Group, which was created last year to deal with the crisis in Venezuela, called on authorities in each of its countries to notify the financial sector about the risks of engaging in business with the Venezuelan government and urge international entities not to issue Venezuela new credit.
It also vowed they would “reduce their level of diplomatic relations” with Venezuela in response to a vote it said didn’t meet international standards.
The European Union had already imposed sanctions on seven top Venezuelan officials including the head of the pro-government election council in January.
The government of Spain added its voice to a chorus of international condemnation, promising to join its European counterparts to study “opportune measures” in response.
Mr Falcon was joined in his demand for a new election by third-place finisher Javier Bertucci, who won around 11% of the vote. Mr 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% — the lowest in a presidential race in two decades of revolution.
But he said he nonetheless favours a new election soon and urged Mr Maduro to do the courageous thing and desist from running. If Mr 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 one million people have fled the country in the past two years and 14,000% inflation has crushed the minimum wage to less than two dollars a month.
Mr 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.