Venezuela voting conditions better, but some candidates blocked unfairly -EU

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EU election observers give initial report on Venezuela's regional elections

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuelan regional and local elections last weekend were held under better conditions than those of previous contests, the head of a European Union’s observation mission said on Tuesday, while declining to say whether the vote was free and fair.

The Sunday vote was the first time in four years the country’s opposition has run candidates, though it suffered a resounding defeat with the ruling party winning at least 18 out of 23 governorships.

The socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro has long faced accusations of anti-democratic practices from the United States and other critics, although the presence of the EU observers was seen by some as conferring a modicum of legitimacy on the process.

Maduro has said the observers carried out their mission “very well” so far, while other senior members of the ruling party referred to observers as “peepers” and accused them of arriving in the country with a pre-written report.

“The elections were implemented in better conditions in comparison with previous electoral processes,” Isabel Santos, the head of the mission, told journalists, while still faulting aspects of the way they were carried out.

“There have been arbitrary bans on candidates for administrative reasons, there have been suspensions, or the most recognized leaders or members of some parties have been withdrawn,” Santos said.

Observers witnessed the use of banned “control points,” meant to track which government supporters cast ballots, she said, and structural deficiencies remain.

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Santos declined multiple times to say whether the vote was free and fair and called for the observers’ eventual final report not to be used as a political instrument.

Some polling places suffered delays in opening and closing times, she said, though voting machines were trustworthy.

The national electoral authority is more politically balanced than it has been in 20 years, Santos said, and balance is key to building public trust.

“The campaign was also marked by the extended use of state resources,” Santos said, and “unequal access to media outlets.”

Opposition figures had questioned the fairness of constant coverage of government candidates on state television and sales of subsidized food ahead of voting.

Santos lamented the murder of one voter in Zulia state who was killed while waiting in line and said one electoral observer and two human rights workers had suffered “aggressions” in Lara state.

More than 1,000 polling places in 23 states were visited by 136 observers, Santos said, and her team will release a final report in late January or early February.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago and Mayela Armas in Caracas; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Alistair Bell)