Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won the right to rule the shattered nation through 2025, after the government said he convincingly won an election Sunday that dozens of nations, including the United States, are calling a sham.
Electoral authorities said Maduro had won 68 percent of the vote versus the 21 percent garnered by Henri Falcón, the former governor of Lara State, and 11 percent won by Javier Bertucci.
Shortly before the results were announced, Falcón accused the administration of vote buying, intimidation and other dirty tricks, and said he considered the election "illegitimate."
The vote came amid opposition calls for a boycott, and anecdotal evidence suggested abstention was running high.
An exit poll by Meganalisis estimated that only 17 percent of the 21 million registered voters went to the polls. Reuters, citing a source on the electoral board, said turnout had hit 32 percent by the time polls were scheduled to close at 6 p.m. local time.
But late Sunday, after some voting stations had been kept open hours later than usual, National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena said participation was close to 46 percent, the lowest turnout for a presidential vote in two decades. By comparison, the last presidential election, in 2013, saw turnout of 80 percent.
"The people of Venezuela have spoken and we ask the national and international [community] to respect the results," Lucena said.
While some polls showed both of Maduro's rivals could have beaten the deeply unpopular president given normal turnout, the opposition boycott destroyed that hope, said Jesús Seguías, with the DatinCorp polling firm.
Even if Maduro, 55, were prepared to engage in outright ballot-stuffing to win the race “the elevated abstention made it unnecessary,” he said in a statement.
Maduro entered the race with rock-bottom approval ratings, and the results show that he only won the support of 28 percent of all registered voters.
From the onset Sunday, it was clear that this was no regular vote. As social media was flooded with pictures of desolate polling stations, state-run television used tight shots to hide meager lines.
The debate over the true tally will likely rage for days, but it seemed clear that Maduro’s hopes for an unassailable show of public support had crumbled amid domestic and international condemnation.
At the San Vicente de Paúl School in the western city of Maracaibo, where some 7,000 people are registered, there were no lines or crowds as in previous elections.
“It’s not a secret that Maduro is going to win because of this,” said María Carolina Fuenmayor, 30, as she gestured toward the empty voting station. “I think the opposition is making a mistake. If we want to get rid of this government, and they give us the chance to vote, why don’t we take it?”
That question has haunted the race since Maduro first called for snap elections in January. With many of his main rivals in jail, sidelined or exiled, the opposition decried the vote as illegitimate and deeply unfair. To participate, they argued, was to give the election a veneer of legitimacy.
“We’ve been clear: ‘Yes’ to elections and voting, but ‘No’ to this, because it’s electoral fraud,” said Victor Márquez Carao, a member of the Broad Front for Venezuelan Liberation, a coalition of opposition forces.
While the opposition was largely sitting out the race, the administration was scrambling to get its people to the polls. Voting booths in government strongholds remained open hours after their scheduled closing time. Electoral watchdogs said people were being bussed in, and some people were being offered boxes of food to vote — a tempting bribe amid widespread hunger.
Earlier in the day, the government insisted the lack of crowds was a mirage: that the voting system was simply so efficient and fast that lines didn’t have a chance to form.
“The whole world should know that millions are voting freely, because the vote is an instrument of justice,” Maduro wrote on Twitter. “In Venezuela, it’s the people who elect the president.”
The international community has been treating the race as a foregone conclusion. The United States, the European Union, Canada and the Lima Group — a bloc of 14 nations — have said they won't recognize the results.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL., called the election a "farce" that was not "deceiving anyone."
In a statement, he said "all policy options to help return Venezuela to a path of democracy and prosperity should be considered. This includes any measures that will open the way for the delivery of international humanitarian aid to be delivered to the people of Venezuela."
Even with the victory, Maduro's troubles aren't over. The country is being hammered by hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages. The international community has been slapping officials with sanctions and stripping their visas. Oil production is collapsing, and there’s been an exodus of those escaping the hardship and hunger.
The Venezuelan diaspora held anti-government rallies in dozens of cities around the world Sunday.
In Miami, about 100 protesters gathered to wave flags and denounce the government.
Carlos Vecchio, the coordinator of the Voluntad Popular opposition party, called the elections "a fraud in progress."
"We're witnessing what I call 21st century slavery," he said. "They are using Venezuelans' hunger to bribe them to go to an event, so that Maduro the dictator can legitimize himself."
In Colombia, where more than 600,000 Venezuelans are thought to have fled in recent years, a few hundred gathered in the capital chanting, “Fraud!” and “We want to go home!”
Alejandra Torres, a 37-year-old political activist, said she left Venezuela three weeks ago because her four young daughters “didn’t have a future there.”
Torres said opposition forces inside the country are weak and demoralized, and that the country needs help from abroad.
“We have to try to raise our voices from here [Colombia] because in Venezuela it’s impossible,” she said. “Our hands are tied there — very tied.”
Human rights groups say there are more than 200 political prisoners in Venezuela, and a government crackdown has made it unlikely that the protests that rattled the nation in 2014 and 2017 will return in the short term.
U.S. officials and others have suggested that more, and more painful, sanctions may be coming after the election.
“How can President Maduro be so thirsty and ambitious for power that he’s willing to keep causing so much pain and suffering for his people in order to cling to power?” Chilean President Sebastian Piñeira wrote on Twitter Sunday.
Despite the calls for a boycott, some saw voting as a civic duty.
Jesús Carroz, a sidewalk vendor in Maracaibo, said he'd gone to vote in the morning, even as his two brothers abstained.
“It's my duty as a citizen," he said. "Maduro has made so many mistakes, but the other candidates are worse."
But others saw their refusal to go to the polls as an act of patriotism.
“Not voting also expresses an opinion,” said Pablo Pérez Herrera in Maracaibo. “There’s no desire to vote. It’s a response to the circumstances.”
Sonia Osorio, with El Nuevo Herald, contributed to this report.