CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s high court on Monday suspended the opposition’s entire primary election process, including its result, and ordered organizers to hand in documents identifying millions of voters, in the latest challenge by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to its adversaries ahead of the 2024 presidential vote.
The court ruled the opposition’s Oct. 22 contest may be in violation of the law. It was not immediately clear whether the suspension would effectively result in the nullification of the primary vote.
The Associated Press could not immediately seek clarification from the head of the National Primary Commission, Jesús María Casal, as he entered the attorney general’s office minutes after the ruling was issued. The commission is an independent body that formed to organize the opposition’s primary.
Maduro and his allies have ridiculed and minimized the primary all year, but they escalated their attacks after the election exceeded participation expectations. More than 2.4 million Venezuelans in the country and abroad voted, including in areas once considered strongholds of the ruling party.
“All effects of the different phases of the electoral process conducted by the National Primary Commission are suspended,” the court said in its ruling issued shortly before Casal and other organizers were set to be interviewed by prosecutors regarding the primary.
The court ordered organizers to hand over all ballots, tally sheets and, crucially, so-called voting notebooks, which were signed by every voter after poll workers verified their identity. It also ratified the bans imposed by Maduro’s government on three candidates, including winner María Corina Machado, on running for office.
Voters waited in line for hours either under the scorching sun or a downpour to cast ballots at voting centers set up in schools, homes and businesses volunteered by their owners as well as parks and plazas. They downloaded apps to circumvent internet censorship and find their voting center, and they improvised when one ran out of ballots and another did not have enough tables.
At least 2.3 million people voted within Venezuela and more than 132,000 did so abroad. Machado, a former lawmaker and longtime government foe, obliterated the competition and was officially declared the winner Thursday after earning more than 90% of the vote.
The challenges to the primary come even though Maduro’s government agreed in principle, days before the election, to let the opposition choose its candidate for the 2024 presidential election. The agreement was part of a deal signed between the government and a faction of the opposition backed by the U.S. But Maduro’s government has in the past bent the law, retaliated against opponents and breached agreements as it sees fit.
The court’s ruling issued Monday was in response to an appeal filed before the primary took place by a virtually unknown lawmaker, José Brito, who claimed he was not allowed to participate in the contest. Tamara Adrián, an attorney, law professor and primary candidate, said the court should not have admitted the appeal in the first place because it did not meet legal requirements, and now the ruling “does not preserve any of Brito’s rights.”
“It is more or less as if I said, I ask that you suspend the demolition of the house, and then the court, without hearing the other party, prohibits the demolition, subject to a series of elements being subsequently proven in the main trial,” Adrian said. “But what if they already knocked down the house? An action of this nature should never have been granted.”
She also questioned the court’s demand for voter notebooks given that “what Brito requested, which was to suspend the (primary), has already occurred.”
That demand could reignite Venezuelans’ long-held fears over voter secrecy.
In 2004, a pro-government lawmaker posted online the names of millions of people who had signed a petition to get on the ballot a referendum to recall then-President Hugo Chávez. Many who were on the list said they lost government jobs and assistance after their names became public.
Casal and other primary organizers were summoned to appear Monday before prosecutors days after Attorney General Tarek William Saab opened a criminal investigation over various allegations, including that the National Primary Commission usurped the duties of a government entity.
The Venezuelan Academy of Political and Social Sciences in a statement Monday said the primaries constituted “a civic event” in line with the Venezuelan constitution and “did not constitute an usurpation of the functions of the (National Electoral Council).”
“The actions of the Public Ministry and the Supreme Court of Justice represent an attack on the constitutional and legal order, on democracy itself and on the citizens who civically participated in said process,” the academy said.
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