- - Sunday, May 20, 2018

BUENOS AIRES — Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro triumphed Sunday in a presidential election whose outcome, amid an opposition boycott, was as much as a foregone conclusion as the heightened tensions it will cause with the United States.

Up against three minor challengers his regime allowed to participate, Mr. Maduro captured some 67 percent of the 8.6 million votes cast, the National Electoral Council announced. The body, whose independence has been widely questioned, put participation figures at 46 percent of the electorate.

Henri Falcon, a former governor and longtime ally of Hugo Chavez who later broke with Mr. Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, captured 21 percent of the vote; evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci about 11 percent; and Reinaldo Quijada, another confidante of Mr. Chavez’s, less than 1 percent.

“How much they underestimated the revolutionary people, how much they underestimated me!” Mr. Maduro told his followers moments after the results were announced. “Knockout! [Mr. Falcon] was left groggy!”

The Trump administration considered Mr. Maduro a “dictator” even before Sunday’s controversial vote, which gave him a second six-year term.

President Trump and Mr. Maduro are not on speaking terms, and the White House has insisted Mr. Trump would dialogue “with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored.”

Mr. Falcon, meanwhile, denounced a litany of violations — including what he said where some 13,000 so-called “red points” offering voters about $13 for a Maduro vote and polling places that remained open hours after the end of voting — and said he would refuse to concede.

“In this sense, we categorically disavow this electoral process,” he said.

Mr. Maduro cast his vote in western Caracas minutes after polling places opened at 6 a.m., though he left it to Diosdado Cabello, the U.S.-sanctioned No. 2 of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, to explain anecdotal evidence of sluggish turnout, as well as the absence of internationally recognized observers, later in the day.

“It’s an extraordinary electoral system, attacked by whom? Those who greatly envy what’s happening in Venezuela,” Mr. Cabello said. “Amid all the attacks from abroad, Venezuela is still the best country in the world, [and] those who have left want to come back.”

Mr. Bertucci, meanwhile, accused Maduro backers of intimidating or bribing voters at polling stations, noting that upwards of 1,400 complaints had been lodged with election authorities by mid-afternoon.

“Obviously, we’ll have a result at the end of the day, but it will be a result that was coerced, that was manipulated,” he said. “Many of our voters are scared.”

Faced with 80 percent disapproval in polls, Mr. Maduro turned to a tried-and-trusted “divide and conquer” strategy and all but hand-picked Mr. Falcon — a former governor who had long straddled the line between Chavez supporter and detractor — as his main challenger.

“In truth, Falcon is not really an opposition candidate because no opposition party — apart from his own — backs him,” Jose Guerra, an independent lawmaker in the opposition-controlled — but largely disenfranchised — National Assembly, told The Washington Times.

Viable candidates, on the other hand, found themselves jailed, exiled or disqualified by the Maduro-controlled judiciary, and moving up the election originally scheduled for the fall further skewed an already uneven playing field, leading all major opposition movements to boycott the vote, Mr. Guerra added.

“The presidential campaign was held in 20, 25 days,” he said. “That doesn’t happen anywhere; it’s not [even] enough to tour all of the country’s states.”

And in a country where 60 percent of citizens tell pollsters they are now “used to feeling hungry,” the result — the victory of an embattled leader who in recent weeks has been taunted repeatedly even at his own, highly choreographed rallies — defies logic, veteran diplomat Oscar Hernandez Bernalette told The Washington Times.

“They are aware of the tremendous economic crisis, the intolerable hyperinflation [and that] the middle class has been erased and no income is enough for this kind of situation,” said Mr. Hernandez, a columnist for the El Nacional daily. “Nobody with a sane mind could believe that Venezuela ought to stick with this government.”

The Trump administration and the Lima Group, an informal bloc made up of Canada, Mexico and 15 South and Central American nations, had long vowed not to recognize Sunday’s vote called by the Constituent National Assembly, a legislative superbody created to circumvent the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

“The so-called elections in Venezuela scheduled for May 20 will be nothing more than a fraud and a sham,” Vice President Mike Pence said earlier this month in a speech to the Organization of American States. “There will be no real election in Venezuela on May 20 and the world knows it.”

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