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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro wins reelection amid charges of irregularities

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro wins reelection amid charges of irregularities
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores wave to supporters after the National Electoral Council announced that with almost 93 percent of polling stations reporting, Maduro won nearly 68 percent of the votes in Sunday's election, beating his nearest challenger Henri Falcon by almost 40 points, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, May 20, 2018. (Ariana Cubillos / AP)

Venezuela's pro-government electoral council declared President Nicolás Maduro the winner of Sunday's election after a vote condemned internationally as the fortification of a dictatorship.

This oil-producing nation is facing a near-total societal collapse because of mismanagement, corruption and a crumbling socialist system, fueling widespread hunger and medical shortages that have sparked the largest migrant crisis in modern South American history. Traditional opposition parties were barred from fielding candidates, and had called for a broad boycott of Sunday's vote amid fears that Maduro is moving to cement dictatorial power.

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"How much have they underestimated our revolutionary people, and how much have they underestimated me," Maduro told a late night crowd in front of the president palace. "And here we are, victorious."

The government announced a 46 percent turnout - the lowest for a presidential election here since the 1940s. With near-empty polling stations across Venezuela, the opposition coalition, known as the Broad Front, claimed that only about 30 percent of voters had cast ballots.

"We asked the people to not participate and they listened," said Juan Pablo Guanipa, an opposition politician.

The electoral commission said that with 92 percent of the vote counted, Maduro - the anointed successor of the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 - had won a second six-year term, with 67.7 percent of the vote. His closest challenger - Henri Falcón, a former governor who broke with Chavez in 2010 - said he would not recognize the result, and called for a new election.

Maduro's challengers in the race, as well as the opposition coalition that called for the boycott, decried systematic election violations. Falcón said that his election monitors had been barred from observing at many polling stations, and that the government had dolled out bonuses to Maduro voters.

The coalition said the government had used state-owned buses to bring in supporters at 78 percent of polling stations. Opponents also charged that government benefit registries were located illegally close at most polling places, suggesting a tit-for-tat relationship between votes for Maduro and access to state food aid.

On Sunday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said Washington would not recognize the results and was considering additional sanctions, including an oil embargo. But he also expressed caution about such a step, which could have dire humanitarian consequences on the ground.

"We don't want to damage the country in a way that makes it difficult to repair after democracy is restored," Sullivan told reporters.

In a defiant rebuttal, Maduro responded at a televised news conference by saying the United States was "desperate given high participation levels" in the election. "Each vote is a response to the North, which thinks it owns us," he said.

Maduro had faced two main opponents - Falcón and Javier Bertucci, an evangelical preacher. Ahead of the vote, some polls showed Maduro and Falcón, who broke with then-President Chávez in 2010, running almost neck and neck. The election commission, controlled by Maduro supporters, reported Falcón had received 21 percent of the vote, and Bertucci 11.6 percent.

Critics say the government has committed fraud to win the last three elections and had predicted that the incumbent would ensure his victory. On Sunday, both Falcón and Bertucci denounced voting irregularities, arguing the government had doled out food and money in exchange for votes.

"We've received reports of voter intimidation, voters being asked who they're going to vote for and being offered money and food," Bertucci said. "This is not a democratic act. . . . There can't be freedom if they buy out hungry people."

Although Falcón said late Sunday that he would not recognize the result, he appeared to back away from calls for civil disobedience or military intervention. Analysts suggested that he may be attempting to forge a more passive opposition movement that could be potentially be more acceptable to the government.

"The exit from this crisis has to be constitutional and electoral," he said.

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Opposition voters struggled with whether to honor the boycott. In eastern Caracas, Maria Diaz, a 30-year-old accountant whose infant child died in a public hospital last month due to a lack of medicines, said she voted for Falcón "because I don't think you win anything by abstaining."

"Look, the country's situation, especially food and medicine, is really bad," she said. "We need change."

Those boycotting the election spoke of colliding emotions - anger at the government, disappointment with the divided opposition and frustration that exhausted Venezuelans were not taking to the streets.

"I am not going to vote. For what?" said Freddy Álvarez, a 43-year-old merchant arguing with his friend about the elections at a bakery in western Caracas.

As recently as last year, tens of thousands of Venezuelans joined anti-government protests, but the marches have largely died out.

"To see a change here, people need to take to the streets again," Álvarez said. "We will not overthrow Maduro with votes. I do not understand why people are so apathetic."

A salsa-loving former bus driver and union leader, Maduro, 55, has sought victory by offering food at rallies and railing against "el Imperio" - the Empire, as he often dubs the United States. On Sunday, pro-government vans with loudspeakers roamed the streets, evoking the name of Chávez and urging Maduro supporters to turn out.

"Let's vote! Let's defend President Chávez's legacy! Don't stay at home!" said a voice from one of the vans.

Some analysts, however, say that Maduro could have won without rigging the vote, in part because his government has created an uneven playing field. Many Venezuelans said they feared losing government jobs or benefits - particularly subsidized government food baskets known as CLAP boxes. Government officials set up registration booths for benefits next to - sometimes inside - polling stations.

"I already voted, and I'm now going to register for benefits, because that's what they're telling us to do," said Andrea Hernandez, a 19-year-old holding her 3-month-old daughter. "The bonuses, the CLAP boxes. If I don't vote for the government, they might stop giving me these benefits."

State TV showed Maduro walking alongside other government officials as he cast his vote.

"We are an example of democracy to the whole world," Maduro tweeted.

Dozens of countries have criticized the elections, saying they will not recognize the results. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called them "fake elections with fake results."

Last week, the United States added to the list of government officials under sanction, targeting the head of the ruling party, Diosdado Cabello, and his family members. U.S. officials have also been seeking to persuade regional banking centers, such as Panama, to crack down on the illicit cash of senior Venezuelan officials, including several charged by Washington with drug trafficking.

Yet a number of global autocrats, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, have backed Maduro. Russia has emerged as Maduro's main benefactor, and Moscow dispatched a 14-member mission to serve as observers of Sunday's vote.

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Given expectations of a Maduro victory, analysts say the real question was always going to be what happens after Election Day.

By every statistical measure, this country is collapsing. Soldiers and police officers are deserting in droves. Water, electricity and transportation are breaking down, sparking a growing number of micro-protests across the nation.

More than 1 million Venezuelans - many of them starving and desperate for medical aid - have fled the country since 2015. Those numbers have spiked in recent months, with aid groups predicting a dramatic new surge after Sunday's vote, worsening staffing shortages at hospitals, schools and crude upgraders.

Plagued by a flight of expertise and a lack of maintenance and investment, oil production - the main source of hard currency in a nation with the globe's largest reserves - is crumbling. Output last month fell to 1.43 million barrels a day - less than Venezuela was producing in 1950.

Legal judgments against Venezuela filed by foreign creditors, meanwhile, have caused the government to panic, scrambling its oil tankers back into domestic waters out of fear that ships or cargo might be seized.

The question now is whether the pressure reaches the point where Maduro's inner circle cracks, a faction of the military turns against him or simply silencing all dissenters becomes mathematically impossible.

"I don't think any politician except Chávez in his best years would be able to rule this country for long, because it's simply ungovernable, collapsed in every sense," said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant. "On May 21, Maduro will find himself hostage of a situation that he himself has bred. I don't think he'll last more than 12 months."

Given the relative weakness and the extent of corruption in the military, however, few here are reading a coup in the tea leaves. If Maduro leaves, experts say, it is more likely to be through a negotiated pact that offers him and his inner circle certain guarantees.

Others suggest Maduro could linger longer than many think. They point to Cuba's "special period" in the early 1990s, when food scarcities hit the nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Observers at the time wrote Fidel Castro's political epitaph, as it turns out, prematurely.

Venezuela's current crisis is relatively worse than those hard years in Cuba. And every time he has scented sedition, Maduro has moved quickly - arresting a growing number of senior figures and rank-and-file soldiers who seem remotely disloyal.

That Maduro continues to rule "is a very real possibility that has to be taken seriously," said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. "The Venezuelan government does see this as their special period, like Cuba in the 1990s, and they are thinking they can get through a couple of tough years and then seek better relations both regionally and internationally."

The Washington Post's Rachelle Krygier and Mariana Zuñiga contributed to this report.

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