In a stunning admission that fueled opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the company that runs the South American country’s voting technology said the results of a widely condemned election Sunday had been manipulated.
The chief executive of Smartmatic, a company founded by Venezuelans specifically to supply voting software for the administration of the late President Hugo Chávez, acknowledged that Sunday’s results had been inflated by at least 1 million out of nearly 8.1 million votes.
“It is with the deepest regret that we have to report that the turnout numbers on Sunday, 30 July, for the constituent assembly in Venezuela were tampered with,” Antonio Mugica said Wednesday.
His remarkable claim was roundly dismissed by the country’s elections chief, Tibisay Lucena, who said the fraud allegations were “baseless” and motivated by the company’s fear of losing U.S. business. Last week, the Trump administration barred Americans from any dealings with Lucena, who was accused of undermining Venezuelan democracy.
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“This action by the U.S. government also affected other providers that lend services to our institution whose foreign accounts we already know have been blocked,” she said.
The country’s chief prosecutor — whom Maduro has threatened with impending dismissal — said late Wednesday she had launched a criminal investigation.
The growing evidence of fraud portends a possible clash Friday, when the government plans to seat the new all-powerful legislative body elected Sunday to rewrite the constitution. Leaders of the existing National Assembly, the only government entity not controlled by Maduro or his socialist party allies, said they’ll have to be forced out.
“They’re wrong if they think we’re going to leave this palace,” National Assembly Vice President Freddy Guevara said. “We might not have the bullets. They’re going to have to come to blows with us if they want to get us out of here. But this assembly will remain in session.”
The 545 constituent assembly members, including Maduro’s wife, received credentials in an outdoor Caracas rally Wednesday. They later met privately in a venue outside the city.
Wednesday began with Mugica, the Smartmatic CEO, saying his firm couldn’t stand by the election results due to a lack of audits and other anti-fraud controls. He blamed Maduro’s opponents for boycotting the election, which meant its representatives weren’t present at the polls as a safeguard.
“There were no witnesses,” he lamented. The government also disallowed international observers from the polls.
Lucena countered that Smartmatic was closely involved in every step of the election, including audits.
“The sort of manipulation Mugica suggests pretends to ignore that Smartmatic is part of the safeguard of the tabulation process,” she said, threatening potential legal action against his firm.
She described the company as opportunistic, charging that it “only made inroads in the U.S. due to its involvement in successful Venezuelan elections.” And she downplayed the company’s role, saying it was limited to providing “certain services and technical support” that do not determine results.
In addition to confirming a manipulation of the results, Mugica’s calling at least 1 million votes into question offered a symbolic win to Maduro’s opponents: They say they got about 7.5 million ballots in an unofficial poll against the government’s power grab two weeks before Sunday’s election.
On Wednesday, the National Assembly demanded a criminal investigation into the results of the violence-marred election. They argued it overrepresented Maduro strongholds and violated the constitution because voters weren’t first asked if they even wanted a new assembly. The European Union joined the long list of countries Wednesday refusing to recognize the body once it’s seated.
Luisa Ortega, the country’s chief prosecutor, said in a CNN en Español interview late Wednesday an investigation was under way.
“We have before us an unprecedented, grave event that constitutes a crime,” she said, adding that promoting fraudulent results “might lead to more violence.” Her office confirmed 10 deaths on Election Day.
Citing internal data from Venezuela’s electoral council, Reuters reported Wednesday that only 3.7 million had cast ballots by 5:30 p.m. Sunday, making it highly unlikely that 8.1 million voted by the time most polls closed at 7 p.m.
A respected Election Day exit poll estimated that less than 4 million people had voted. Public-opinion polls ahead of the election showed it was deeply unpopular. And most streets and polling places were empty and quiet Sunday.
“This is an earthquake of worldwide proportions, because what we’d been screaming at the top of our lungs now has complete confirmation,” National Assembly President Julio Borges told reporters Wednesday. “Smartmatic has declared it has hard, incontrovertible data that not only was the constituent election fraudulent at a constitutional level, but also because all the results the national electoral council read that night are absolutely fraudulent.”
Borges said he had “no doubt” electoral council members could be guilty of a crime by manipulating election results.
The opposition’s only electoral council member, Luis Emilio Rondón, said Tuesday that he couldn’t endorse announced vote tallies. He rattled off a list of Election Day irregularities that included lax auditing and the fact that poll workers didn’t dip voters’ fingers in indelible ink to prevent them from casting multiple ballots. The government says ID cards with biometric information mean indelible ink is unnecessary.
At the last minute before the election, the electoral council allowed voters for the first time to vote at any precinct in their municipality.
“If we drill down to precinct-level results, we will find other signs of fraud,” opposition lawmaker Juan Pablo Guanipa predicted. “What they did here was pick a number that they settled on days before the election. They thought people weren’t going to find out. They did.”
Borges said parliament would ask the country’s chief federal prosecutor, a Maduro loyalist-turned-critic, to investigate the results. The new constituent assembly, however, is expected to dissolve the existing legislature and dismiss prosecutor Ortega.
Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela control all other public institutions, leaving the opposition with few ways to take on the government. A noon protest was planned for Thursday.
Cracks among opposition leaders began to emerge Wednesday after one of them, Henry Ramos Allup, said his party would take part in regional elections expected in December. The leader of another party, María Corina Machado, had said Tuesday that the opposition should continue its boycott, calling the electoral council untrustworthy.
In a sign of things to come Friday, lawmakers walking in and out of the gold-domed legislative palace Wednesday were met by crowds of Maduro supporters, jeering them.
“We have to keep fighting. We have to, because this only ends when the dictatorship ends,” opposition lawmaker Freddy Valera said in an interview, who conceded legislators won’t be able to block entryto constituent assembly members.
“How do you physically confront a contingent of people armed with sticks, stones, shotguns and pistols when we’re unarmed?” he said. “We’ve confronted them morally. We’ve been here, present. And we’re going to keep being present, because that’s what we can do. We’re not vandals. We’re not thugs.”
Mazzei reported from Miami.