(Adds Venezuela recalling envoy to Canada for talks)
By Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Oct 17 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro
defended Venezuela's "secure" election system on Tuesday as
opponents struggled to present a united front over allegations
of fraud in a nationwide vote surprisingly won by the ruling
Despite widespread anger over economic hardship, the
Socialist Party confounded opinion polls to take 17 of 23
governorships in Sunday's election.
Stunned by the defeat that undermines their aim to win the
presidency in 2018, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition
refused to acknowledge the results and called the election
rigged, as did the United States.
Though the coalition has complained of an unfair playing
field - from abuse of state resources to last-minute moving of
vote centers away from opposition strongholds - it has not given
detailed evidence of ballot-tampering.
Some opposition figures have acknowledged abstention by
their supporters - disillusioned by the failure of street
protests to dislodge Maduro earlier this year - was a big
Two losing opposition candidates, Henri Falcon in Lara state
and Alejandro Feo La Cruz in Carabobo, have conceded defeat,
breaking with the official coalition position.
Both criticized "irregularities" in the vote but also
lamented many demoralized opposition supporters stayed at home.
"We need courage to recognize truth in adversity," said
The strongest criticism of Sunday's vote came from
Washington, which slammed Maduro's "dictatorship." Several
European nations also expressed concern, while 12 countries in
the Americas from the so-called Lima Group condemned "obstacles,
intimidation, manipulation and irregularities".
Washington is considering further sanctions on Venezuela,
after various measures against top officials and the economy
earlier this year, while the European Union is mulling the same.
Government leaders have smarted at fraud accusations.
"Venezuela's election system is the most secure and audited
in the world," Maduro said on Tuesday. "President Donald Trump,
I am not a dictator; I am a humble worker ... I have a moustache
and look like Stalin, but I'm not him."
The Venezuelan leader invited EU foreign policy chief
Federica Mogherini to visit or receive him in Brussels to "open
their eyes," and told "stupid" Canada to stop meddling.
Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza later said on Twitter that
Maduro had recalled Venezuela's ambassador to Canada for talks.
'WE WILL NOT KNEEL'
Heaping further humiliation on Venezuela's opposition, the
governors were due to be sworn in on Tuesday by a new
legislative superbody elected controversially in July.
The opposition boycotted that vote and has refused to
recognize the entirely pro-government Constituent Assembly,
which supersedes all institutions including the
The opposition's five governors-elect planned to boycott the
swearing-in ceremony, defying Maduro's threat to bar them from
office for failing to accept the assembly as a higher authority.
"We will not kneel to anyone," said Juan Pablo Guanipa, who
won the oil-rich western Zulia state.
Despite food shortages, runaway inflation and a tanking
currency, Venezuela's government retains significant bastions of
support, especially in poorer, rural parts of the country.
In his news conference, Maduro said the socialists also won
Bolivar state, which would take its total to 18 governorships
versus five for the opposition.
The government won a total of 54 percent of the votes
overall, he added. The election board has not confirmed the
Bolivar result or the overall vote figures.
With the opposition coalition's dozens of parties arguing
over whether there was fraud, what went wrong, and where to go
next, it will need to regroup and map strategy quickly heading
into the 2018 presidential campaign.
Its very future may even be in doubt, since many young
activists who took to the streets for four straight months of
protests and pitched battles with security forces earlier this
year feel betrayed by their leaders.
The unrest killed at least 125 people.
Maduro has long accused opposition leaders of being behind
violence, and on Tuesday called the new opposition governor of
Zulia state a "fascist" while accusing his counterpart in
Tachira of links to Colombian "paramilitaries."
The election aftermath appears to have sunk a
government-opposition mediation effort that began last month in
the Dominican Republic. Even though Maduro wants to resuscitate
the talks, the opposition coalition has ruled that out.
"We are the majority, the dictatorship is more-and-more
illegitimate, popular and global condemnation grows daily
against this regime," it said in a communique late on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Deisy Buitrago in
Caracas, Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Helen Murphy in Bogota;
Editing by Tom Brown)
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