Brazil quits Venezuela observer team after leader barred

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil has dropped out of an international mission to observe Venezuela’s parliamentary election in December because President Nicolas Maduro’s government barred a former Brazilian Supreme Court chief justice from heading the team.

Brazil’s top electoral authority on Tuesday said Venezuela had refused its choice of Nelson Jobim, a former minister in two governments, to head the observer mission of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) despite wide support from the 12 member nations.

The announcement is a blow to Maduro, who has benefited from the diplomatic support of regional heavyweight Brazil at delicate moments including his contested 2013 election and a 2014 wave of opposition protests.

The Dec. 6 parliament vote is seen as one of the most difficult for the ruling Socialist Party as the OPEC member struggles with runaway inflation and a shrinking economy.

Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court, or TSE, said it had sought to observe conditions before the election to ensure a level playing field, but Venezuela’s authorities had hindered access to an audit of its electronic voting system.”For these reasons, the TSE decided not to participate in the UNASUR mission,” the electoral body said in a statement.

Venezuela has in recent years reduced the role of foreign electoral observers, instead receiving scaled-back “accompaniment” missions that have had less access to data.

Officials call that decision a matter of national sovereignty, while adversaries insist it is meant to reduce transparency of the polls.

“In silence and shadows, the Maduro government imposed a veto,” the opposition Democratic Unity coalition said in a statement. “We reject and denounce the unacceptable conduct of the Maduro government and its electoral agents.”

The incident would, the coalition said, ensure heightened international attention on the elections and had demonstrated the increasing isolation of the “unpresentable Maduro regime.”

Jobim had served as defense minister in the government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a friend and ideological ally of Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez.

He also was justice minister for Lula’s predecessor and ideological adversary Fernando Henrique Cardoso, burnishing his credentials as an impartial observer.

His presence would have given international credibility to the election, said Venezuela analyst David Smilde.

“This is very bad news,” he said.

“Jobim was proposed by the UNASUR foreign ministers. Now (the Venezuelan government) cannot say its sovereignty was at stake, or that the United States was imposing its agenda.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Grant McCool, Toni Reinhold