By Cassandra Garrison and Hugh Bronstein
LONDON/CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela inflated the turnout figures for its constituent assembly election by at least 1 million votes, the company that provides voting machines to the country said on Wednesday, in a blow to President Nicolas Maduro and his ruling Socialist Party.
The news came hours after Reuters exclusively reported that only 3.7 million people had voted by 5:30 p.m. in Sunday's poll, according to internal elections data, compared with 8.1 million people authorities said had voted that day.
Venezuela's electoral council extended voting to 7 p.m., but election experts said doubling the vote in the last hour and a half would be without precedent.
Electronic voting technology firm Smartmatic, which created the voting system used by Venezuela since 2004, said the turnout figures had been tampered with.
"We know, without any doubt, that the turnout of the recent election for a National Constituent Assembly was manipulated," said Smartmatic Chief Executive Antonio Mugica in a press briefing in London.
"We estimate the difference between the actual participation and the one announced by authorities is at least 1 million votes," he said.
The opposition, which boycotted the vote, has dismissed the official tally of 8.1 million participants as fraudulent. That figure was crucial for Maduro to legitimize the election.
The opposition in July held an informal plebiscite that it said brought in more than 7 million voters who overwhelmingly rejected the creation of the constituent assembly.
The assembly will have the power to dissolve the opposition-run congress and is expected to sack the country's chief prosecutor, who has harshly criticized Maduro this year.
Countries around the world have condemned the assembly, which has no legal restrictions on its powers, as an assault on democratic rule.
Critics say the assembly is meant to indefinitely extend Maduro's rule. They say he would lose a free and fair presidential election and is widely criticized for an economic crisis marked by triple-digit inflation, rising poverty levels and chronic shortages of food and medicine.
OIL WORKERS MARCH
Maduro says the assembly was necessary to give the government power to end the economic crisis and bring peace to the country after four months of opposition protests, which often include violent clashes between security forces and hooded demonstrators. More than 120 people have been killed since the unrest began in April.
Maduro is due to swear in delegates to the 545-member assembly on Wednesday, with its first session to be held on Thursday.
Opposition leader Freddy Guevara called for a protest march on Thursday to prevent delegates to the new assembly from occupying the halls of congress, which the opposition won in a landslide victory in 2015.
"Now is a time for action, not words," Guevara said.
The United States this week called Maduro a dictator, froze his U.S. assets, and barred Americans from doing business with him. The European Union said it was mulling a "whole range of actions" on Venezuela.
Maduro, like his predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, regularly laughs off criticism from Washington even though the United States is Venezuela's top crude importer.
He continues to enjoy public backing from the Venezuela's military, though soldiers are increasingly weary of the popular backlash against their role in quelling protests.
Though the Trump administration has discussed creating sanctions that would hit the country's oil sector, those plans have remained on hold as officials review the potential impact on U.S. energy markets and refining companies.
Oil workers loyal to Maduro rallied in several energy producing regions of the country on Wednesday.
Chanting and carrying the red Socialist Party flag, they denounced sanctions on the leftist president.
"We are here to show our rejection of the intervention of the United States," one demonstrator said during a televised rally, calling the sanctions "a political show with harmful economic consequences for the people of Venezuela."
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by W Simon and Tom Brown)