Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido launched a week-long plebiscite on Monday as President Nicolas Maduro claimed victory in legislative elections boycotted by most of his opponents and criticised by Western leaders.
Guaido, the country’s self-proclaimed interim president, had called for a boycott of Sunday’s legislative polls, which saw the ruling United Socialist Party claim control of an expanded 277-seat National Assembly – the only branch of government previously not in Maduro’s hands.
“Today Venezuela wakes up with a new dawn of peace, joy, unity and strengthening of democratic institutions,” Maduro said on Twitter.
Maduro and his left-wing allies had 68.4 percent of the vote with 98.6 percent of ballots counted, the National Electoral Council said.
Most Venezuelans turned their back on the polls however, with turnout at just 31 percent.
The election came with the country in a deep political and economic crisis – suffocated by runaway inflation, an oil embargo and a shortage of key supplies including water and gas.
The United States, the EU and many Latin American countries have long blamed Venezuela’s economic crisis on Maduro’s repression and misrule.
They backed Guaido when the National Assembly speaker proclaimed himself interim president in January of last year.
Guaido, 37, called on voters to stay at home for Sunday’s vote on grounds that “free and fair” conditions for holding elections do not exist.
Instead he and his allies opened a week-long plebiscite Monday, seeking public support to prolong the current National Assembly’s mandate until “free, verifiable and transparent” elections can be held.
The referendum-style “popular consultation”, using the web and mobile phone apps, calls for the end of Maduro’s “usurpation” of the presidency.
“It’s the chance to transform this rejection … into strength, into mobilisation,” he told a press conference Monday, hailing a “higher than expected” turnout for the virtual vote, though he declined to give figures.
On Saturday, supporters will be able to vote in-person at polling booths in Venezuela.
US tech firm Voatz, which has used the technology in polls in West Virginia, Colorado and Utah, is using blockchain technology to secure the online poll.
However, the results will not be binding, as Maduro exercises control of the country’s institutions, including the Supreme Court, the electoral authority and the powerful military.
Analyst: Guaido risks political irrelevance
Some analysts believe Guaido backed himself into a corner by boycotting the official election, and in doing so has risked losing the support of his international backers.
“Guaido will lose his formal legitimacy as president of the National Assembly in January, when Maduro will consolidate total power,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, told AFP.
Speaking ahead of the vote, Miami-based analyst Aquiles Este said Guaido also risked political irrelevance in the eyes of many Venezuelans.
“The opposition has never looked so weak in the eyes of the public,” Este told FRANCE 24. “Guaido arrived with a promise to chase Maduro out of the Miraflores presidential palace, but he’s been incapable of doing so.”
For now, Guaido’s main foreign backer, the United States, continues to voice support for the embattled opposition leader.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would continue to recognize Guaido “and the legitimate National Assembly”.
“The international community cannot allow Maduro, who is in power illegitimately because he stole the 2018 election, to gain from stealing a second election,” Pompeo said in a statement.
He described Sunday’s election as a “farce” and a bid to install a “complicit, puppet National Assembly, beholden only to Maduro”.
Britain called the elections “deeply flawed” and said it continued to recognize Guaido as Assembly speaker as well as Venezuela’s interim president.
Canada and the Organization of American States also rejected the result, while the European Union said the vote showed “a lack of respect for political pluralism”.
Caracas ally Russia, however, hailed the elections as more “transparent than in some countries which usually present themselves as an ‘example of democracy'”.