Caracas: Venezuelan lawmakers granted President Hugo Chavez extraordinary legislative powers to govern the country by decree for the next 18 months.
Applause broke out as the heavily pro-government national assembly approved the measure just three weeks after the opposition made landmark gains to take 40 percent of seats -- 67 out of 165 -- in the new assembly from January.
The new legislature will end the unhindered advantage the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela has enjoyed for five years in passing laws, after opposition parties boycotted the 2005 elections and were shut out of the process.
The new law on Friday appears to mean that Chavez could now simply overrule the legislature by issuing a decree.
"We declare as approved the law authorising the President... to issue decrees with rank, worth and power of laws on matters delegated to him," said National Assembly President Cilia Flores, adding the measure would be submitted to Chavez immediately.
It is the fourth time Chavez has been allowed to rule by decree since he was first elected in 1999. He was given special powers in 2000, 2001 and 2008, when he approved more than 100 laws.
Chavez asked for the special powers to quickly deal with the heavy rains and flooding in past weeks which has killed 38 people and affected some 130,000.
Originally, the powers were to last for 12 months, but lawmakers extended them to 18 months by "request of the (flood) victims themselves”.
According to the government`s Gaceta Oficial publication, Chavez`s new authority, beside emergency matters, will also extend to finance, housing and infrastructure, social affairs, international cooperation, and urban planning.
In an address to the nation on Thursday, Chavez said he had "nearly ready" some 20 laws he would announce once he was granted decree-ruling powers.
The Assembly backing Chavez`s socialist-populist government has scrambled in recent weeks to pass major legislation on the banking system and public administration, among other laws.
One law set for approval would punish electronic media that broadcast messages that put national security at risk, encourage unrest or support killing the president.
The measure, known as the Law of Social Responsibility on Radio and Television, also authorises the executive to order Internet operators to restrict access to websites that broadcast the banned information.
The new law was strongly criticised both inside and outside Venezuela, with opposition lawmakers saying it was an effrontery to democracy and the principle of separation of powers.
"It simply makes a mockery of all our people, including those who voted on September 26" for a new Parliament, said Estado Miranda Governor and opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
One of the new lawmakers voted in September, Julio Borges, said Chavez was seeking a stranglehold on power.
"Hugo Chavez`s abuse of power these past few days shows that the process behind building a dictatorship in Venezuela is taking on a definite face," he added.
"It`s a government plan to disqualify parliament and establish absolute autocratic rule starting January 01, with no oversight," said opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia.
Socialist lawmaker Carlos Escarra defended the new law however, saying "our legal system requires a set of modifications so we can act quickly”.
The United States has criticised Chavez`s demand for special powers, accusing the Venezuelan President of subverting the will of his people.
"He seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Wednesday.
Chavez later shot back at Crowley, saying he was "reading from the far-right`s playbook”, and insisting the charge was a "lie”.
The new law required a three-fifths vote of the assembly, the same majority now needed for it to be revoked, something unlikely given the new assembly will still include 60 percent of Chavez followers.