Venezuela's election chief has denied a report that voter turnout numbers were manipulated and inflated by at least 1 million for this week's controversial election to choose an assembly to rewrite the national constitution.
The head of the National Election Council, Tibisay Lucena, said the claim by a British election-technology firm was irresponsible, and she threatened to begin legal action against the company.
This is an unprecedented opinion from a firm whose only role in the electoral process is to provide certain services and technical support that has no bearing on the results, Lucena said.
The head of British firm Smartmatic, Antonio Mugica, said Wednesday in London there is no question in his mind that the total reported vote was false. He did not, however, say whether vote tampering altered the outcome of Sunday's balloting.
Based on the robustness of our system, we know without any doubt that the turnout of the recent election for a National Constituent Assembly was manipulated, Mugica said. We estimate the difference between the actual participation and the one announced by authorities was at least 1 million.
The government said more than 8 million people cast ballots Sunday. The opposition, which boycotted the vote, said turnout was less than half that number, and that account was reinforced by journalists' reports that dozens of polling places around Caracas were almost deserted on Sunday.
The president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Julio Borges, said Smartmatic's findings are complete confirmation of what the opposition and election analysts had suspected.
Pre-election polls showed more than 70% of all Venezuelans opposed a body to change the constitution.
The opposition contends the vote was rigged to pack the assembly with supporters of President Nicolas Maduro. Maduro's opponents are demanding early presidential elections. The next scheduled election is October 2018.
Despite the controversy surrounding voter turnout and the final results, Maduro plans to swear in the 545 members (including his wife and son) of the new constituent assembly so they can get to work. He originally set Thursday for the assembly's opening session, but late Wednesday announced the new body would begin its inaugural session on Friday instead, for the sake of peace and calm.
It has been proposed, Maduro said at a ceremony for the new assembly members in the capital, that the installation of the National Constituent Assembly, instead of being held tomorrow, be organized in peace and calm, with all necessary protocol, on Friday at 11 a.m.
But the opposition says its goal is to dissolve the opposition-controlled national assembly, fire anyone who disagrees with the government, and turn Venezuela into a socialist dictatorship.
The United States, Canada, European Union, and nearly every Latin American nation have said they will not recognize the constituent assembly.