CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Revelations on Wednesday that turnout figures were apparently manipulated in a crucial vote for an all-powerful constituent assembly in Venezuela cast a deeper shadow over the controversial body shortly before it was to convene.
The official count of voters in Sunday's election was off by at least 1 million, according to the head of the voting technology firm Smartmatic — a finding certain to sow further discord over a body that has been granted vast authority to rewrite Venezuela's constitution and override every branch of government.
Results recorded by Smartmatic's systems and those reported by Venezuela's National Electoral Council show "without any doubt" that the official turnout figure of more than 8 million voters was tampered with, company CEO Antonio Mugica told reporters in London. The international software company has provided voting technology in Venezuela since 2004.
Mugica said there was a 1 million vote discrepancy, but he did not specify whether his company's figures showed 1 million fewer, or 1 million more, voters participated in the election.
"Even in moments of deep political conflict and division we have been satisfied with the voting process and the count has been completely accurate" previously in Venezuela, Mugica said. "It is, therefore, with the deepest regret that we have to report that the turnout figures on Sunday, 30 July, for the constituent assembly in Venezuela were tampered with."
Tibisay Lucena, the head of the National Electoral Council, dismissed Smartmatic's claim, calling it an "opinion" of a company that played only a secondary role in the election and had no access to complete data. "A company located outside the country does not guarantee the transparency and credibility of the Venezuelan electoral system," she said.
Hours later, President Nicolas Maduro accused Smartmatic of bowing to U.S. pressure to "stain" the election results. Standing behind the electoral council's voter count, he proclaimed that an additional 2 million Venezuelans would have cast ballots if they hadn't been stopped by roadblocks erected by the socialist government's opponents.
"Nothing and no one can stop the victory of the people!" Maduro said to applause from 500 members of the new assembly.
The president also announced that the assembly's installation was being delayed by a day, convening on Friday instead of Thursday in order to "organize it well in peace and tranquility." The electoral council also must still provide 35 members with their credentials, he said.
Smartmatic's claim drew an immediate reaction from opposition leaders who have contended since Sunday's results were announced that the National Electoral Council inflated the turnout count. Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, said lawmakers were asking the nation's chief prosecutor to investigate election commission members for potential crimes.
"They are going to install a fraudulent constitutional assembly and no one can say with certitude that these people ... were those who won or if they were the product of a scheme," Borges said.
Even before Smartmatic's allegations, there were growing doubts over the official turnout count. The opposition — a sizeable portion of the population — boycotted the vote, and an independent exit poll concluded that less than half the government's figure cast ballots. Opposition leaders said counts from observers stationed in each municipality also suggested the government's numbers were inflated.
In an election in which virtually all the candidates were supporters of Maduro's ruling socialist party, turnout was one of the only indicators of how much popular support the constituent assembly might have.
Luis Emilio Rondon, one of five members on the electoral commission and the only who has sided with the opposition, said Tuesday that he had grave doubts about the accuracy of the count, in part because the commission had ordered fewer audits than in previous elections. He also said it did not use permanent ink to mark voters' fingers to ensure no one voted twice.
The electoral council has provided a total vote count and lists of individual winners but no details on how many votes each person received, or how many votes were cast in each region, as it has in previous elections.
"The controls that make our electoral system robust were, by and large, relaxed, and in some cases, eliminated," Rondon said.
Mugica said his company's automated election system is designed to show when results are manipulated but requires that a large number of auditors participate, from both the ruling and opposition parties, which he said did not happen during Sunday's vote.
"This would not have occurred if the auditors of all political parties had been present at every stage of the election," he said.
Smartmatic, which supplies services worldwide, was founded by Venezuelans in Caracas and began providing voting technology during the presidency of the late Hugo Chavez, who installed the nation's current socialist government. In the past, opposition members have questioned the validity of results, but the firm has maintained its impartiality.
Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalisis, a Caracas-based polling agency, said Smartmatic's finding was, "without a doubt, the most devastating pronouncement yet for the credibility" of the nation's electoral council.
Maduro called the vote in May after weeks of protests fed by anger at his government over food shortages, triple-digit inflation and high crime. He has argued that the body will help end the violence and protests that have left at least 125 dead, while also vowing the use the system to target enemies and solidify Venezuela as a socialist state.
Despite the unrest and plummeting popularity ratings, Maduro appears to have maintained the full support of the country's most important institutions, notably the armed forces. Top military figures have been given special status and are scattered throughout the government. They also are in charge of strategic areas such as food distribution in which Venezuelans say bribery is widespread.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Leonore Schick reported from London.
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