World

Venezuela's Maduro declared election winner amid illegitimacy claims

Venezuela's leftist leader Nicolas Maduro won a new six-year term on Sunday, but his main rivals disavowed the election alleging massive irregularities in a process critics decried as a farce propping up a dictatorship.

'Process undoubtedly lacks legitimacy and as such we do not recognize it,' says rival

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, centre, and his wife Cilia Flores, right, wave to supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Venezuela's leftist leader Nicolas Maduro won a new six-year term on Sunday, but his main rivals disavowed the election alleging massive irregularities in a process critics decried as a farce propping up a dictatorship.

Victory for the 55-year-old former bus driver, who replaced Hugo Chavez after his death from cancer in 2013, may trigger a new round of Western sanctions against the socialist government as it grapples with a ruinous economic crisis.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is threatening moves against Venezuela's already reeling oil sector.

Venezuela's election board, run by Maduro loyalists, said he took 5.8 million votes, versus 1.8 million for his closest challenger Henri Falcon, a former governor who broke with an opposition boycott to stand.

"They underestimated me," Maduro told cheering supporters on a stage outside his Miraflores presidential palace in downtown Caracas as fireworks sounded and confetti fell on the crowd.

A member of the Bolivarian Militia plays the flute at a polling station during the presidential election in Caracas on Sunday. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Turnout at the election was just 46.1 percent, the election board said, way down from the 80 per cent registered at the last presidential vote in 2013. The opposition said that figure was inflated, putting participation at nearer 30 per cent.

"The process undoubtedly lacks legitimacy and as such we do not recognize it," said Falcon, a 56-year-old former state governor, looking downcast.

Maduro had welcomed Falcon's candidacy, which gave some legitimacy to a process critics at home and around the world had condemned in advance as the "coronation" of a dictator.

Rivals call for new vote

Falcon's quick rejection of Sunday's election, and call for a new vote, was therefore a blow to the government's strategy.

Opposition abstainers saw it as vindicating their decision.

Falcon, a former member of the Socialist Party who went over to the opposition in 2010, said he was outraged at the government's placing of nearly 13,000 pro-government stands called "red spots" close to polling stations nationwide.

Presidential candidate Henri Falcon addresses supporters in Caracas on Sunday. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

Mainly poor Venezuelans were asked to scan state-issued "fatherland cards" at red tents after voting in hope of receiving a "prize" promised by Maduro, which opponents said was akin to vote-buying.

The "fatherland cards" are required to receive benefits including food boxes and money transfers.

A third presidential candidate, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, followed Falcon in slamming irregularities during Sunday's vote and calling for a new election.

Javier Bertucci followed Falcon in slamming irregularities during Sunday's vote and calling for a new election. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

Despite his unpopularity over a national economic meltdown, Maduro benefited on Sunday not just from the opposition boycott but also from a ban on his two most popular rivals and the liberal use of state resources in his campaign.

Maduro, the self-described "son" of former President Hugo Chavez, says he is battling an "imperialist" plot to crush socialism and take over Venezuela's oil. Opponents say he has destroyed a once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent.

'I'm hungry and don't have a job'

In many polling stations visited by Reuters reporters, from wealthy east Caracas to the Andean mountains near Colombia, attendance appeared thin. There were lines, however, at poorer government strongholds, where the majority of voters interviewed said they were backing Maduro.

"I'm hungry and don't have a job, but I'm sticking to Maduro," said Carlos Rincones, 49, in the once-thriving industrial city of Valencia, accusing right-wing business owners of purposefully hiding food and hiking prices.

Voters line up at a polling station during the presidential election in Caracas. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Many Venezuelans are disillusioned and angry over the election: They criticize Maduro for economic hardships and the opposition for its dysfunctional splits.

Reeling from a fifth year of recession, falling oil production and U.S. sanctions, Venezuela is seeing growing levels of malnutrition and hyperinflation, and mass emigration.

I'm not voting — what's the point if we already know the result?- Punto Fijo residet Raul Sanchez

Venezuelan migrants staged small anti-Maduro protests in cities from Madrid to Miami. In the highland city of San Cristobal near Colombia, three cloth dolls representing widely loathed officials — Electoral Council head Tibisay Lucena, Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello and Vice-President Tareck El Aissami — were hung from a footbridge.

But streets were calm, with children playing soccer on one road in San Cristobal blocked off at past elections to accommodate long voter lines. For many Venezuelans, Sunday was a day to look for scant food or stock up on water, which is increasingly running short because of years of under-investment.

Maduro holds a copy of the country's constitution as he addresses supporters. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

"I'm not voting — what's the point if we already know the result? I prefer to come here to get water rather than waste my time," said Raul Sanchez, filling a jug from a tap by a busy road in the arid northwestern city of Punto Fijo because his community has not had running water for 26 days.

With the election behind him, Maduro may choose to deepen a purge of critics within the ruling "Chavismo" movement.

He faces a Herculean task to turn around the moribund economy, with the bolivar currency down 99 per cent in the past year and inflation at an annual 14,000 per cent, according to the National Assembly.

Canada calls election 'illegitimate'

The more than 5,000 Venezuelan citizens living in Canada are prevented from taking part in the vote, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada has confirmed.

"Canada will not be authorizing the opening of polling stations in Venezuelan diplomatic missions in Canada, due to the illegitimacy of these elections," the department said in a statement Saturday.

"The Maduro regime's unwillingness to allow all political actors to participate freely and fully, and to allow for a free press, is deplorable," the department said.

"The Maduro regime has made no attempt to ensure the election meets international standards of freedom and fairness. We will make no apologies for calling this election what it is: illegitimate," it said.

It's a void election, because it was called by an illegal entity. There's no accordance with Venezuelan law.- Rebecca Sarfatti, Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum

Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza has called Canada's decision hostile and has urged the government to reconsider.

Rebecca Sarfatti of the Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum has been helping organize the Venezuelan-Canadian community during elections for years. This is the first time she has refused to participate, she told CBC News.

"It's a void election, because it was called by an illegal entity. There's no accordance with Venezuelan law. There's no transparency … I could not be part of that," she said.

The United States, European Union and many Latin American countries have said they won't recognize the results.

With files from CBC's Joan Leishman

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