Venezuela's congress names opposition-linked election council members

Venezuela's National Assembly president Jorge Rodriguez, first vice-president Iris Varela and second vice-president Didalco Bolivar attend the extraordinary session for the election of a new National Electoral Council in Caracas, Venezuela May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's congress on Tuesday named two opposition-linked figures in a new elections council, the make-up of which is keenly observed by Western diplomats pressing for free and fair elections in the South American nation.

The United States and Europe have for years accused President Nicolas Maduro of using the council, which oversees national and state elections, to stack votes in favor of the ruling Socialist Party. Maduro's 2018 re-election was broadly boycotted and widely dismissed as a farce.

The new board of five directors, which was approved by a Socialist Party-dominated legislature, includes two members close to the opposition: Enrique Marquez, a former legislator, and Roberto Picon, an engineer who has advised the opposition.

Picon told Reuters in an interview that the new board was "the most balanced, in a way, in the past 17 years."

"We will try to overcome all the obstacles that exist so that people again believe in the vote as an instrument of change," he said.

Still, opposition leader Juan Guaido - who is recognized by the United States and dozens of western countries as Venezuela's legitimate president - dismissed the new elections council as fraudulent, arguing it was "imposed" by the government.

He said the body should be named through a broad agreement with the opposition that includes other reforms.

The other three members are Alexis Corredor and Pedro Calzadilla, former officials in Maduro's government, and Tania D'Amelio, a member of the prior elections council who was accused by the opposition of being partial to the Socialist Party.

"They will be the administrators of the voice of the people that will be expressed in elections in the next seven years in Venezuela," said congress chief Jorge Rodriguez during the session.

Some diplomats have hoped that naming a new elections council would convince the Biden administration to soften sanctions on Venezuela that were created under the Trump administration in an effort to force Maduro from office.

A State Department official this week said that Venezuela is sending "signals" through recent actions including the release of former executives of refining company Citgo, but that Washington is waiting for concrete action toward free elections.

The council's new leadership, which also includes 10 substitute deputies, will oversee elections for state governors that are expected to be held in December.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Sam Holmes and Richard Pullin)

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