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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Venezuela sets April 22 for election after talks break down

US and European nations condemned the rush to hold vote so early, saying it is unfair to the opposition

Tibisay Lucena, right, announces that Venezuela's presidential elections will be held on 22 April. Cristian Hernandez / EPA
Tibisay Lucena, right, announces that Venezuela's presidential elections will be held on 22 April. Cristian Hernandez / EPA

Venezuelan officials moved swiftly on Wednesday to call an early presidential election, acting hours after a breakdown in talks between the government and opposition over how to conduct the vote.

The election will be held April 22, said Tibisay Lucena, head of the government-controlled National Electoral Council.

Venezuela traditionally has held its presidential elections late in the year, and the United States along with several countries in Europe and Latin America have condemned the rush to hold the vote so early, saying it undercuts political negotiations and is unfair to the opposition.

Socialist president Nicolas Maduro has already launched his campaign for a second term and stands as the only candidate as Venezuela continues to sink deeper into an economic crisis of high inflation and food shortages.

Talks on resolving Venezuela’s political divide fell apart earlier in the day in the Dominican Republic, with the two sides accusing one another of grandstanding and negotiating in bad faith.

Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina, one of the international mediators, said the talks had entered an “indefinite recess” when Venezuelan government negotiators returned home on Tuesday night after signing a “draft agreement” that was unacceptable to the opposition.

The head of the opposition's delegation, Julio Borges, urged the government to reconsider its stance while reiterating that he will not sign an agreement that puts Venezuela’s democracy at risk. He called on Venezuela’s government to accept the opposition’s counter proposal.

Among its demands made public Wednesday, the opposition wants the United Nations to observe the election and the government to guarantee that millions of Venezuelans living abroad could cast their vote.

“If the government wasn’t afraid of a free election it would have no choice but to sign our document, which is based on Venezuela’s laws,” Mr Borges said.

Before hundreds of cheering supporters in Caracas, Mr Maduro signed a draft of the government’s “agreement”, which the opposition coalition rejected. But he added that the dialogue remains alive.

In the absence of a deal, Venezuela’s rancorous fight for power could become a lot uglier.

The Constituent Assembly, which is controlled by the government but is considered illegitimate by the United States and many foreign governments, had called last month for the election to take place by the end of April.

It remains to be seen whether the opposition – or large parts of it – will boycott the contest, hoping that many countries will not recognise the results. The ballot could also prompt the US to follow through on a threat to cut off oil shipments from Venezuela, which is an OPEC nation.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was wrapping up a tour of the region, said on Wednesday that he was more favourable now to the idea of oil sanctions because the situation in Venezuela has steadily worsened.

“We’re going to take it to him and let him make the decision,” Mr Tillerson said, referring to US President Donald Trump.

Four-digit inflation and widespread shortages of everything from cash to food has collapsed support for Mr Maduro’s socialist administration.

But he is betting he can still win re-election after having sidelined several prominent opponents and crushed anti-government protests last year that left more than 130 people dead.

The government also controls the National Electoral Council, whose credibility to oversee the contest has been questioned by the opposition following two elections last year that were marred by allegations of fraud and vote-rigging.

Luis Emilio Rondon, the only member of the electoral commission who has sided with the opposition, said after the announcement that the rushed presidential date jeopardises the possibility of a free and fair election.

“Less time, less guarantees,” he said.

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