Venezuela poll: EU condemns violence as turnout figure disputed

Bloc says it has doubts whether election for constituent assembly marked by deadly protests should be recognised.

Venezuelan electoral authorities and opponents of Nicolás Maduro’s ruling socialists have clashed over turnout figures in Sunday’s vote for an assembly to write a new constitution and give the party greater powers.

The national electoral council said more than 8 million people had voted on one of the deadliest days since massive protests started in early April in Venezuela, but the figure was immediately disputed by the opposition, which said fewer than half that number had taken part.

Many voters decided against taking part in an election the opposition said would turn the country into a full-fledged dictatorship.

The European Union has condemned “the excessive and disproportionate use of force by security forces” and said it had serious doubts whether the election could be recognised.

“Venezuela has democratically elected and legitimate institutions whose role is to work together and to find a negotiated solution to the current crisis. A constituent assembly, elected under doubtful and often violent circumstances, cannot be part of the solution,” the bloc’s foreign policy service said.

The US vowed to take “strong and swift actions” against Venezuelan officials, including the 545 participants in the constitutional assembly, many of them low-ranking party members. The US did not say whether it would sanction Venezuelan oil imports, a measure with the potential to destabilise Maduro’s government and deepen the country’s humanitarian crisis.

The opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, said as many as 14 had died in protests on Sunday as voting was under way and the prosecutor’s office confirmed at least six people had been killed by gunfire, including a national guardsman. Seven police officers were also wounded in an explosion in the opposition stronghold neighbourhood of Altamira.

Capriles, the governor of the central state of Miranda, urged Venezuelans to continue protests on Monday.

Turnout was 41.53%, or 8,089,320 people, the electoral council president, Tibisay Lucena, announced just before midnight. Members of the opposition said they believed between 2 million and 3 million people had voted and one well-respected independent analysis put the number at 3.6 million.

The winners among the 5,500 ruling-party candidates running for seats in the constituent assembly will have the task of rewriting the country’s constitution and will have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.

Maduro and his closest allies have vowed to use the assembly to jail key opposition leaders, remove the country’s outspoken chief prosecutor from her post and strip opposition legislators of their constitutional immunity. He said he would also use the assembly to bar opposition candidates from running in gubernatorial elections in December unless they negotiate an end to four months of protests that have killed at least 125 and wounded nearly 2,000.

Maduro hailed what he claimed as a high turnout in an address on national television late on Sunday.

“More than 8 million in the middle of threats … it’s when imperialism challenges us that we prove ourselves worthy of the blood of the liberators that runs through the veins of men, women, children and young people,” he said.

An exit poll based on surveys from 110 voting centres by New York investment bank Torino Capital and a Venezuela public opinion company estimated 3.6 million people voted, or about 18.5% of registered voters. “The results thus suggest that the government maintains an important loyal core of supporters that it can mobilise in both electoral and non-electoral scenarios,” the report concluded.

The same exit poll also noted that Venezuela has an estimated 2.6 million government employees, “suggesting that a large fraction of the votes could have not been voluntary”.

The new assembly will be convened within 72 hours of the election and will function with virtually unlimited powers. Maduro has said the assembly will help bring peace to the politically split country, but the opposition, and increasingly the international community, have warned that it will only serve for Maduro and the ruling socialist party to tighten their grip on power.

Several countries including the US, Britain, Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Spain said they would not recognise Sunday’s vote.

Maduro said he had received congratulations from the governments of Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, among others.

Polls show that Maduro, successor to Hugo Chávez who set the country on a socialist path, has about a 20-point approval rating and that 70% of Venezuelans do not want the constitution of 1999 rewritten.

Dozens of polling places in the capital, Caracas, were virtually empty on Sunday, including many that in the past two decades have had hours-long lines of thousands voting to keep the government in power.

Under Maduro, elected after Chávez’s death from cancer in 2013, the once buoyant oil-based economy has plunged into crisis and crippled the social programmes Chávez had set up for Venezuela’s poor majority.

Price controls brought widespread food and medicine shortages and spiralling inflation, as well as unbridled violence, driving millions of Venezuelans to leave the country.