Venezuela poll results a 'strong message' to US, allies: Maduro

Maria Isabel SANCHEZ
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro is celebrating his party's victory in regional elections but the opposition reject the results and demand an audit

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro said Tuesday his socialist party's landslide victory in disputed regional elections had delivered a "strong message" to the United States and its allies.

"Our people have given a strong message to imperialism, to (US President Donald) Trump, to its regional allies and to the local right," an ebullient Maduro told journalists after the opposition rejected the results the US and EU has called deeply flawed.

Washington on Monday condemned "the lack of free and fair elections" while the European Union called the results of Sunday's vote "surprising" and said it was necessary "to find out what really happened."

Trump last month said he had not ruled out possible military action in response to Venezuela's growing political and social turmoil.

In a three-hour press conference that amounted to a victory lap for Maduro, he accused the "imperial forces of the north" of launching "a psychological, political and economic war" against his government.

"It is not going to be an economic war or an induced inflation that makes this people give up," said Maduro, who according to opinion polls has an 80 percent dissatisfaction rating among Venezuelans, who are struggling with serious food and medicine shortages and record inflation.

- A call for general elections -

The president of neighboring Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, said Tuesday that Venezuela needed to hold general elections under an "independent" electoral authority.

The results amounted to a crushing blow for the opposition Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD) coalition, which had characterized the elections as a referendum on Maduro after months of deadly street protests earlier this year failed to unseat him.

The MUD took only five states, with one still undecided, to the government's 17. But opinion polls had put it ahead in as many as 18 states.

The five opposition governors-elect have refused to swear allegiance to Maduro's all-powerful Constituent Assembly, which he formed in July to bypass the opposition-dominated parliament.

Maduro threatened over the weekend that failure to recognize the Constituent Assembly would result in dismissal.

The government-backed governors-elect joined Maduro at the press conference, in which the Venezuelan president railed against countries which had cast doubt on the election results.

The ceremony was originally expected to take place after Maduro's press conference, but would now take place on Wednesday at 11:00 am (1500 GMT), the Constituent Assembly announced on Twitter.

"The government's strategy is to strengthen the national and international legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly. The leaders of the opposition are running the risk of disconnecting themselves from their electorate if (the governors) present themselves before it," analyst Eugenio Martinez said.

However, constitutional specialist Jose Vincent Haro said there was no obligation to go before the assembly: "According to the constitution of each state they must be sworn in before the legislative council of their state."

The opposition coalition, which accuses the National Electoral Council of being a vehicle for the government, rejected the result and called for a full audit of the electoral process, saying it was riddled with "irregularities."

They included last-minute changes to polling station locations and limited availability of voting machines in opposition neighborhoods.

An immediate consequence of the poll is the opposition's refusal to hold talks with the government on ending the country's political and economic crisis without a full recount of the vote.

"We will not take part in exploratory talks or negotiations unless (the authorities) agree to a recount," said Angel Oropeza, one of the MUD coalition's leaders.

- Push for 'independent audit' -

International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in the wake of an economic collapse caused by the fall in the price of oil, its main source of revenue.

Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Datanalisis survey group in Caracas, told AFP the opposition had lost the election because they were "fractured and discouraged."

But he said such a win for the government would have been impossible "in a transparent and competitive election."

"Isolation, deterioration, primitivization and radicalization are not, as many believe, triggers of the departure of the government that promotes them," he said.

A group of 12 Latin American countries and Canada have backed calls for an "independent audit" of the elections.

China and Cuba, both close allies of Maduro, have welcomed the result.