New Venezuela parliament faces empowered Chavez

Opposition parties take up gains in Venezuela`s National Assembly Wednesday but President Hugo Chavez has countered the loss of his supermajority by taking on special decree powers and reining in dissent.

Updated: Jan 04, 2011, 11:15 AM IST

Caracas: Opposition parties take up gains in Venezuela`s National Assembly Wednesday but President Hugo Chavez has countered the loss of his supermajority by taking on special decree powers and reining in dissent.

A raft of new laws pushed through last month by the then mainly pro-Chavez assembly were decried as a "coup d`etat" by opposition politicians in the oil-rich South American nation.

Internet content and broadcast media freedoms have been restricted, lawmakers who switch parties face punishment, and, crucially, the president is entitled to pass laws by decree for the next 18 months.

This takes Chavez through to 2012, when the 56-year-old former military officer is once again seeking re-election.

The outspoken critic of the United States has imposed his socialist vision on Venezuela and asserted greater state control over the economy since riding a populist wave to power in 1998.

But Chavismo, as his particular brand of socialism is known, suffered a blow with the resurgence of the opposition in September 2010 elections, amid public frustration with rising crime and a lengthy recession.

Sixty-seven opposition legislators will take up seats in the 165-member legislature on Wednesday, ending five years of almost unopposed rule by Chavez supporters following an opposition boycott in 2005.

"The Venezuelan opposition will have open doors at the National Assembly to discuss ideas," ruling party candidate for assembly president Fernando Soto Rojas told state-run television on Monday.

Rojas called on government critics to present an "alternative project" and not just hit out at Chavez`s "21st Century Socialism."
But opposition deputies fear December`s new laws have removed any hope they will be able to influence Chavez`s agenda in the polarized nation.

"It will be a National Assembly with clipped wings because it won`t have important legislative functions in 18 months... nor will it be able to control the Executive," said Federico Welsch, a professor at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas.

Chavez defended the decree powers as necessary to help reconstruction after floods last year that left tens of thousands of Venezuelans homeless.
In a newspaper column published on Sunday, he played up the role of the assembly, saying it would be "one of the great stages for battle in 2011."

But critics, like politics professor Ricardo Sucre from the Central University of Venezuela, fear Chavez will only seek more power.

PTI