Venezuela faces more isolation, sanctions after contested vote





Caracas (AFP) - The United States condemned closely watched regional elections in Venezuela as neither free nor fair Monday, as European countries weighed imposing sanctions, leaving President Nicolas Maduro increasingly isolated after declaring a landslide win.

Maduro's opponents cried foul after official results said his socialist party won governorships in 17 of the troubled oil producer's 23 states in Sunday's elections, defying opinion polls.

Experts said Venezuela's punishing political and economic crisis will only deepen. But it is unclear what moves are now open to the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which rejected any talks with the government without a full recount.

Washington -- which has imposed sanctions on Maduro and his inner circle over what it calls Venezuela's slide into dictatorship -- said the lack of outside observers, last-minute changes to polling station locations and other irregularities meant the vote was not credible.

"We condemn the lack of free and fair elections yesterday in Venezuela. The voice of the Venezuelan people was not heard," said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

The European Union's chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, called the results "surprising" and said it was necessary to "find out what really happened."

France said it was "worried" about the "serious irregularities" reported by the opposition, while Spain said the EU had renewed discussions on possible sanctions.

- 'Going to get ugly' -

The results were a crushing blow for the MUD, which had characterized the elections as a referendum on Maduro after months of deadly street protests earlier this year failed to unseat him.

The MUD took five states, with one still undecided. But opinion polls had put it ahead in as many as 18.

"We've asked our candidates to plan to take to the streets in demand of a full recount," said opposition campaign chief Gerardo Blyde.

The MUD ruled out further talks on ending the country's crisis without a recount.

"We will not take part in any exploratory talks or negotiations unless (the authorities) agree to a recount," said MUD coordinator Angel Oropeza.

But the fractious coalition had no clear strategy to deal with its surprise defeat.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, there had been something of a truce in Venezuela, after months of violent protests that left some 125 people dead from April to July.

Now, the question is what comes next for the troubled country, which is in the grips of a punishing recession marked by food and medicine shortages.

"We are entering a very delicate situation, one that presages more confrontation," political analyst Luis Salamanca told AFP.

Whatever is coming, it "won't be good," said 47-year-old public employee Atacho Stalin.

"This is going to get ugly. I think we're in for more protests," he said.

Others were unsure.

"Taking to the streets got us nothing," said Blanca, 33, a disillusioned protest veteran.

- Inaugural boycott looms -

International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in the wake of an economic collapse caused by a fall in the price of oil, its main source of revenue.

Maduro and his allies held 20 outgoing governorships, but had been widely expected to lose many more.

Sunday's elections were the first contested by the opposition since a legislative vote in 2015 that gave it an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly.

The MUD has denounced Maduro's moves to tighten his grip on power since then.

He has formed a Constituent Assembly packed with his own allies and wrested legislative power away from the National Assembly.

The all-powerful Constituent Assembly will swear in the incoming governors on Tuesday. The opposition insisted its governors would not be sworn in before the assembly, which it considers illegitimate.

Political analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos said more international sanctions were now in store, including by the EU, and "greater isolation."

Maduro "will now depend more on China and Russia," he said.

China praised the vote as "calm," and leftist regional allies Bolivia and Cuba congratulated Maduro on what Cuban President Raul Castro called "another great lesson in peace and democracy."

But the head of the Organization of American States, bitter Maduro critic Luis Almagro, said the vote "cannot be recognized."

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