(Update: Adds info on press suppression, one death)
Caracas, Nov 21 (EFE).- Although initially Venezuela’s local and regional elections were reported to be progressing calmly on Sunday, albeit with delays in organizational activities at some polling places and power blackouts at certain precincts, a local NGO reported at least 26 violations of freedom of speech, mostly involving the security forces suppressing the activities of reporters, and one man was killed while waiting to vote.
Low voter turnout was also reported in a set of contests in which the opposition is participating for the first time in five years.
The polling places began opening at 6 am but five hours later 2 percent of the precincts were still not operating, according to a report by National Election Council (CNE) president Pedro Calzadilla.
He said that by midday a few “isolated incidents” had occurred, but they were “minor, as always happens.”
However, amid insistent questions from the media on that subject, the CNE chief refused to comment on specific cases and said only that the incidents were “quantitatively insignificant,” emphasizing that 98 percent of the precincts were operating at 11 am and avoiding discussing the apparent fact that 2 percent were not yet up and running.
In addition, he said that “fake complaints” about the balloting were circulating on the social networks.
Venezuelan non-governmental organization Espacio Publico on Sunday reported that 26 violations of freedom of expression had been registered during journalistic coverage of the elections.
“Up to noon, we’ve registered 26 violations of the right to freedom of expression, in a total of 11 cases in (the states of) Lara, Tachira, Merida and Nueva Esparta,” said the NGO on its Web page.
The organization said that 25 people had been the victims of these violations where “intimidation was the most repeated deed.”
Among the incidents was the arrest of journalist Orlando Montlouis, whom Bolivarian National Guard officers took into custody in central Miranda stage, forcing him to erase photos he had taken while he had been inside a polling place for about 30 minutes.
In addition, security forces were said to have “obstructed the passage of media workers at voting centers and in other cases removed them while they were covering” the election.
Also, one man apparently was shot to death and two people were wounded as they were standing line waiting to vote in the state of Zulia, which borders on Colombia, an eyewitness told EFE, although Venezuelan authorities said the incident was unrelated to the election.
A woman identified as Alejandra Bustamante said that a group of people got out of several vehicles and began pushing voters and open firing in the area.
“They began kicking everyone in the line and they pushed me and didn’t let me go about voting,” Bustamante told EFE, adding that a group of opposition supporters was attacked in Maracaibo, in Zulia.
The director of the Criminal Scientific Investigations Body (Cicpc), Douglas Rico, said on Twitter that he had appointed a team of top Cicpc officials to go to the site to clarify the incident, adding that “initial information” fails to link the matter to the elections, a stance that was repeated by Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos, who called it an “isolated” event.
A police report said that the man who was killed was identified at 38-year-old Antonio Urdaneta, and the two wounded people were Johan Jose Montero, 19, and Sonia Urdaneta, 57, all of whom were taken to a local hospital, although the older man arrived without vital signs.
There were also reports on the social networks at some polling places of election observers exclusively from the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), who at times reportedly were acting as precinct staff.
Spain’s international news agency EFE verified that several power blackouts had occurred and affected precincts in Caracas, including at Petare, the Venezuelan capital’s biggest “favela,” or shantytown.
Among the opposition leaders, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who has been in the front rank in calling for opposition supporters to cast ballots in these elections, reiterated his opinion that “this election doesn’t belong” to President Nicolas Maduro, but rather “to the Venezuelans” living in Venezuela itself as well “as to those who are abroad and cannot” vote.”