CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan officials declared socialist leader Nicolas Maduro the easy winner of Sunday's presidential election, while his leading challenger questioned the legitimacy of a vote marred by irregularities and called for a new ballot to prevent a brewing social crisis from exploding.
The National Election Council announced that with almost 93 percent of polling stations reporting, Maduro won nearly 68 percent of the votes, beating nearest challenger Henri Falcon by more than 40 points.
The disputed victory is likely to heighten international pressure on Maduro, as voter turnout was the lowest in a presidential race since the start of Venezuela's leftist revolution two decades ago. Even as voting was taking place Sunday, a senior State Department official warned that the U.S. might press ahead on threats of imposing crippling oil sanctions on the nation that sits atop the world's largest crude reserves.
The election "without any doubt lacks legitimacy and we categorically refuse to recognize this process," Falcon told supporters before the results were announced.
Falcon was joined in his call for a new election by third-place finisher Javier Bertucci, who got around 11 percent of the vote. Bertucci, a TV evangelist, stopped short of challenging the results, saying what he called a mistaken opposition boycott that led to the lowest voter turnout in two decades of socialist rule also boosted Maduro.
But he said that in the event of a new vote, Maduro should do the courageous thing and desist from running. If Maduro presses forward, he said, Venezuela would explode from a social crisis marked by widespread food shortages and hyperinflation before his new six-year term starts next January.
Maduro immediately called for dialogue with his presidential opponents. But he showed no sign of replaying Sunday's vote.
"The electoral processes have ended for now," he said, saying that he wanted to spend the next two years before scheduled congressional elections to focus on repairing the economy.
He also slammed Falcon, who like him was an acolyte of the late President Hugo Chavez. Maduro said he had never seen a candidate dispute results even before they were announced.
"Sooner or later, they all break in the face of threats from the imperialists," he said, appeling to the U.S. to also reconsider its belligerent stance toward his government.
Both of Maduro's opponents accused electoral authorities of turning a blind eye to a slew of blatant violations, including the establishment of red tents just steps away from voting centers where ruling party activists scanned on cellphones government-issued "Fatherland Cards." Many voters said they hoped it would bring them a cash bonus or even a free apartment.
Under Venezuela's electoral law, any political activity must take place at least 650 feet (200 meters) from voting centers. National Electoral Council president Tibisay Lucena acknowledged a handful of complaints, but insisted they were minor compared to past elections.
Falcon said his campaign found "red points" at 86 perecent of polling sites nationwide. He called them a "pressure mechanism, an element of political and social blackmail" directed at the poor.
Voting centers across Venezuela appeared largely empty for the election despite assurances from government officials that millions had turned out to vote by midmorning.
Turnout in the previous three presidential elections averaged around 79 percent. Chavez, after taking office in 1999, eliminated mandatory voting in Venezuela.
Opposition leaders said the lifeless voting centers were evidence that Venezuelans heeded their call to abstain from voting in an election they contended was certain to be rigged in favor of Maduro's socialist policies.
Opinion polls say the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans distrust the electoral council. Turnout figures in last year's elections for a constitutional assembly, which the opposition also boycotted, were inflated by at least 1 million votes, according to the company that provided technology for Venezuela's electronic voting machines for more than a decade.
Both Maduro and the two anti-government presidential candidates who broke with the opposition's push to boycott the election had urged voters to go to the polls.
Maduro, setting an example for government supporters who he called on to vote early, cast his ballot in Caracas shortly after fireworks and loud speakers blasting a military hymn roused Venezuelans from sleep around 5 a.m.
He said Venezuelans would provide an example of democracy to the world and brushed back suggestions he was taking the country down an authoritarian path.
"It's offensive when they say the Venezuelan people are falling under dictatorship," he said after voting.
Maduro also said that if he won the election, he would seek an understanding with his opponents on a way forward for the crisis-wracked country. "I'm going to stubbornly and obsessively insist in dialogue for peace," he said.
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