Caracas: Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro moved quickly to swear in a new assembly with extraordinary powers as he faced charges that turnout figures for the body's election were "manipulated."
The firm that supplies Venezuela's voting technology, Smartmatic, on Wednesday said official figures in Sunday's election were "tampered with" in such a way that the turnout appeared greater than it was.
The election of the new super-assembly, with candidates selected from the ruling party, drew international condemnation as a power grab by the unpopular Maduro, whose leftist government is beset by violent street protests and an economy on the brink of collapse.
Those fears were underscored on Wednesday when two prominent opposition leaders were hustled off to jail in the middle of the night by armed members of the Venezuelan intelligence services.
Maduro planned to swear in the 545 members of the so-called Constituent Assembly, including his own wife and son, today at a concert arena in Caracas, his press office said
They will then take their seats on Thursday in the formal chamber of the National Assembly, which is now controlled by the opposition but whose powers will be superseded by the new body.
The opposition has called a major rally for Thursday as well.
Venezuelan officials claim that more than 40 percent of the country's 20 million voters cast ballots on Sunday, which were boycotted by the opposition.
In London, Smartmatic chief executive Antonio Mugica told reporters, "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."
"We estimate the difference between the actual participation and the one announced by authorities is at least one million votes," he said.
The British company, which has worked in Venezuela since 2004, deplored the fact that opposition parties did not provide election auditors or send representatives to the tabulation center when the results report was issued.
It noted that political parties usually received printed copies of election returns of all polling stations, to allow them to compare these printed records against the results published later by the electoral commission.
"This protocol has been followed in all Venezuelan elections since 2004, except for the elections last Sunday, because the opposition didn't participate," Mugica said.
The opposition says turnout was closer to 12 percent — on a par with the population of state employees, who were under major pressure to vote.
According to polling firm Datanalisis, more than 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the new assembly.
On Tuesday, Luis Emilio Rondon, the only opposition representative on the National Electoral Council's five-member board, charged there were irregularities in Sunday's elections.
"I consider to be reasonable the doubts the people may have about the results offered by the CNE," he said, referring to the election authority by its Spanish acronym.
The National Assembly on Tuesday agreed not to recognize "the fraudulent and illegitimate" Constituent Assembly, which will have the power to dissolve it.
More than 125 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and protesters since 1 April in an uptick of resistance to the Maduro government.
Wednesday's seizure of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who were already under house arrest, marked another ominous turn in the conflict.
In a statement, the Supreme Court said Lopez and Ledezma violated the terms of their house arrest by making political statements and had "a plan to flee" — a charge their lawyers vehemently denied.
In a video he pre-recorded in case he was sent back to jail, Lopez urged his supporters to keep fighting Maduro's government.
"We must not give up the fight. We must never surrender. We must not tire of demanding a better Venezuela," he said.
The men are two of Venezuela's most high-profile opposition leaders. Both had called for a boycott of Sunday's vote.
The United States, which has already slapped sanctions on Maduro and top officials, was scathing in its reaction to the detentions.
President Donald Trump sternly warned Maduro's "dictatorship" that he holds him personally responsible for the health and safety of the two men.
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres urged Maduro's administration to "lower tensions" and "find avenues for political dialogue," an appeal echoed by European Union diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini's spokeswoman.
Spain said it would push for EU sanctions.
Maduro has dismissed the US sanctions and criticism, retorting that he will not heed "imperial orders."
Lopez, 46, was transferred to house arrest in July after serving three years and five months in prison as part of a 14 -year term. He had been convicted of instigating violence during protests against Maduro in 2014 that left 43 people dead.
Ledezma, 62, was arrested in February 2015 on charges of conspiracy and racketeering and was placed under house arrest three months later for health reasons.
Updated Date: Aug 03, 2017 07:30 AM