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Maduro declared winner of second term in Venezuela amid severe crisis

The election comes during a deepening crisis that's made food scarce and inflation soar as oil production in the once wealthy nation plummets.
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CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro handily won a second term, election officials said Sunday, but eerie scenes of largely empty voting centers and reports of widespread irregularities led rivals to dispute the vote and call for a new election.

The National Election Council announced that with almost 93 percent of polling stations reporting, Maduro had won nearly 68 percent, beating his nearest challenger, Henri Falcon, by almost 40 points.

The opposition argued throughout the day that a Maduro victory would lack legitimacy because many voters stayed home, heeding a call to boycott an election that many saw as rigged. Government critics also said other voters were pressured into backing Maduro. Electoral authorities projected turnout at only 48 percent.

Falcon said he had received at least 350 complaints from voters about the existence of the "red points," where socialist party volunteers scanned their their so-called Fatherland Cards to verify that cardholders had done their patriotic duty of voting — presumably for Maduro.

Falcon called on election officials to shut them down, calling it a "pressure mechanism, an element of political and social blackmail" directed at a poorer sector of the population.

While polls show Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for their mounting troubles, he was still heavily favored thanks to a boycott by his main rivals amid huge distrust of the electoral council, which is controlled by government loyalists.

More than 1 million Venezuelans have abandoned their country for a better life abroad in recent years, while those staying behind wait in line for hours to buy subsidized food and withdraw cash that's almost impossible to find.

Maduro, setting an example for government supporters who he called on to vote early, cast his ballot in Caracas shortly after fireworks and loudspeakers blasting a military hymn roused Venezuelans from sleep around 5 a.m. local time.

He said Venezuelans would provide an example of democracy to the world and brushed back suggestions thaty 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, adding that if he were to win 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."

In the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas not all voters heeded a call to stay indoors in protest.

Nayra Martinez, a city employee and opposition activist, bucked her party's call to abstain from casting her ballot, saying it was no time to stop fighting.

"If you're sick and the doctor gives you few days to live, you don't lay in bed waiting to die," she said. "You seek treatment."

But in the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas, the leafy streets were largely empty.

In the neighborhood of Los Palos Grandes, opposition supporter Henri Roldan, 62, said he wasn't voting. Instead, he was going to eat out at a restaurant, a luxury he now limits himself to once a month since inflation has devoured his pension check.

"Our money just doesn't stretch as far as it should," said Roldan, a retired computer technician, stopping near fountains at his neighborhood plaza to chat with friends. "Eating out is so expensive."

The election drew broad criticism because some of Maduro's most popular rivals were barred from running and several more were forced into exile. Echoing the views of Venezuela's tattered opposition movement, the United States, the European Union and many Latin American countries have already said they won't recognize the results.