By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN and LEONORE SCHICK
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The number of Venezuelans who participated in the election for an all-powerful constituent assembly was tampered with — off by at least 1 million votes — in an official count, the head of a voting technology company asserted Wednesday, a finding certain to sow further discord over the super-body that has generated months of nationwide protests.
Smartmatic CEO Antonio Mugica said results recorded by his systems and those reported by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council indicate “without any doubt” that official turnout figure of more than 8 million participants was manipulated.
The international software company has been providing electronic machines in Venezuela since 2004.
“Even in moments of deep political conflict and division we have been satisfied with the voting process and the count has been completely accurate,” Mugica told reporters in London. “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.”
Mugica did not say if his company’s figures showed 1 million more — or 1 million fewer — voters participated in the election.
The assembly will be granted vast powers to rewrite the nation’s constitution and override every branch of the government. Opposition members boycotted the election, claiming the terms to select delegates were heavily rigged to favor the ruling party. President Nicolas Maduro has vowed to use the assembly to target his enemies and solidify Venezuela as a socialist state.
Maduro says the body will help end the violence and protests that have engulfed the country since March, with at least 125 reported dead.
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.
An independent exit poll concluded Sunday’s turnout was less than half that reported by the election commission. Opposition leaders who stationed observers in every municipality also questioned the count.
Julio Borges, the president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, said lawmakers will ask the nation’s chief prosecutor to investigate commission members for potential crimes.
“They want to give total power to an assembly who people with more than 10 years managing the electoral process in Venezuela say with all certainty, irreversibly, with hard data from their own servers, that the announced result was crooked,” Borges said.
The assembly is expected to be sworn into office Thursday. Opposition leaders are calling on Venezuelans to gather in Caracas for a mass protest.
Despite widespread international condemnation, Maduro has appeared undeterred in his plans to seat the constituent assembly this week. He has threatened to use the assembly’s virtually unlimited powers to go after his opponents — and the jailing of two prominent opposition leaders Tuesday appeared to show he is willing to proceed with full force.
Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were dragged from their homes by heavily armed security agents and thrown into a military prison. The nation’s Supreme Court is accusing them violating the terms of their house arrest by plotting to escape and releasing video statements criticizing Maduro.
Both men’s supporters denied the charges and vowed to continue to try to push the ruling socialist party from power. However, they gave little indication of how they planned to do that, and the capital was unusually quiet after months of sometimes violent protests.
Smartmatic, which now supplies services across the world, was founded by Venezuelans and began providing voting technology during the presidency of the late Hugo Chavez. In the past, opposition members have questioned the validity of results, but the firm has consistently maintained its impartiality.
Mugica said the company’s automated election system is designed to make evident when results are manipulated, but requires auditors to be monitoring.
“It is important to point out that this would not have occurred if the auditors of all political parties had been present at every stage of the election,” he said.
Luis Emilio Rondon, one of five members on the electoral commission and the only who has sided with the opposition in the past, said after the election that he had grave doubts about the accuracy of the vote count, in part because the commission had ordered fewer audits than in previous elections. He said it did not use permanent ink to mark voters’ fingers to ensure no one votes twice.
In a series of Tweets Wednesday, Rondon called on the commission to publish vote counts from all the nation’s polling sites and for Smartmatic to provide an audit. The commission 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.
Maduro called the vote for the constitutional assembly in May after weeks of protests fed by anger at his government over food shortages, triple-digit inflation and high crime. Many people accuse the ruling party of corruption and mismanagement.
The Trump administration on Monday added Maduro to a growing list of high-ranking Venezuelan officials targeted by financial sanctions. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration was “evaluation all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future, and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”
Maduro scoffed at the sanctions, saying he would use the assembly’s powers to bar opposition candidates from running in gubernatorial elections in December unless they negotiate an end to protests that have resulted in at least 120 deaths and nearly 2,000 injuries over the past four months.
Leonore Schick reported from London.