Venezuelan government escalates attacks on opposition's primary election as turnout tops forecast

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s government escalated attacks Tuesday on the past weekend’s opposition primary to choose a challenger for President Nicolás Maduro next year, saying the voter turnout claimed by organizers was inflated and amounted to a crime.

Maduro’s government and its allies have spent months hindering opposition efforts to hold their primary election and have banned the now-apparent winner from being a candidate — leaving the effectiveness of Sunday’s poll in doubt. The attacks on the legitimacy of the primary also could sow fear among voters already wary of government reprisals for participating in the polling.

National Assembly President Jorge Rodriguez said the partial results showing participation of at least 1.6 million voters were mathematically impossible given the number of available voting centers and the time it takes a person to cast a ballot.

“What happened this past Sunday was not an election, it was a farce, it was a scam,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “Since we knew that they were planning the farce… we put a person in each of the voting centers and we counted one by one, minute by minute and hour by hour.”

He called organizers “criminals,” insisting that he had shown “sufficient evidence that establishes a crime in Venezuela.”

María Corina Machado, a longtime government foe and former lawmaker, already has declared herself the winner of Sunday’s polling after results showed her far ahead of nine other candidates. The partial results released by the organizing National Primary Commission showed that with 65% of tally sheets counted, Machado had 1,473,105 votes, or nearly 93% of the total. Her closest competitor had just under 70,819 votes, a little over 4%.

The primary was open to all registered voters within Venezuela and roughly 400,000 people living abroad. Within the South American country, voters defied repression, censorship and the weather to participate, even in neighborhoods once considered strongholds of the ruling party.

Organizers did not forecast participation figures, but logistical issues, fuel shortages, government threats and repression led people involved or familiar with the effort to initially estimate turnout of around 1 million. That projection doubled as more and more people arrived at the polls in Venezuela and other countries, including Spain, Mexico and the U.S.

The strong turnout by Venezuelans in and outside their homeland demonstrated a deep desire for an alternative to Maduro’s decade-long, crisis-ridden presidency.

Opposition-driven efforts have struggled in the past to keep names of participants private, and voters' fears could be reignited by the voting-center surveillance that Rodriguez described Tuesday.

In 2004, a pro-government lawmaker posted online the names of millions of people who had signed a petition to get on the ballot a referendum to recall then-President Hugo Chavez. Many who were on the list have said they lost government jobs and assistance after their names became public.

Holding Venezuela’s first presidential primary since 2012 required the deeply fractured opposition to work together. That itself was a feat. But it could still prove futile, if Maduro’s government wishes.

While the administration last week agreed in principle to let the opposition choose its candidate for the 2024 presidential election, Machado remains officially barred from running for office. And Maduro’s government has in the past bent the law, retaliated against opponents and breached agreements as it sees fit.

Last week’s agreement was part of a two-year-old negotiation process between Maduro’s government and a faction of the opposition backed by the U.S. government. The deal calls for both sides to work together on electoral conditions ahead of next year’s election.

Rodriguez, Maduro’s chief negotiator, said Tuesday that intends to call a meeting with his counterpart from the opposition and a diplomat of Norway, which has been guiding the dialogue process, to address the primary’s alleged violations of the agreement.