Venezuela President Hugo Chavez says expanded powers are necessary to cope with the emergency caused by recent torrential rains. Opponents, however, contend the weather crisis is being used as a pretext to allow Chavez to continue implementing his program after the new Congress – with an Opposition contingent significant enought to block radical Communist legislation — comes into power in 2 weeks.
CARACAS – Venezuela’s National Assembly voted Friday to give leftist President Hugo Chavez the authority to legislate by decree on a broad range of issues for the next 18 months.
The president and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, say the expanded powers are necessary to cope with the emergency caused by recent torrential rains.
Opponents, however, contend the weather crisis is being used as a pretext to allow Chavez to continue implementing his program after the new congress – with a much smaller PSUV majority – begins work next month.
The bill originally called for the president’s special powers to last for 12 months, but Assembly speaker Cilia Flores suggested extending the period by six months, citing comments she heard from groups representing those affected by flooding and mudslides.
Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, received a similar mandate after declaring a state of emergency because of the floods, but his extra powers last only for a little over a month — through mid-January. Chavez’s discretionary authority will extend through all but seven of his remaining 25 months in office.
Only a score of opposition lawmakers voted “no” on Friday and passage by the 165-member assembly, where Chavez supporters now have more than 90% of seats — after the Opposition boycotted the last legislative elections over fraud and transparency issues in 2005 — was a foregone conclusion. In the first reading earlier this week, the bill passed with 157 in favor and five opposed.
The forthcoming law allows Chavez to legislate by decree to meet “the vital and urgent human needs deriving from the social conditions of poverty and from the rains” in policy areas including infrastructure, transportation, housing, finance and taxes.
The president is also granted special powers over defense, foreign assistance and “in the ambit of the socioeconomic system of the nation.”
This is the fourth time Chavez has received extended powers since becoming president in 1999.
Assuming nothing changes, the current grant of special authority will expire about six months before the 2012 presidential election.
Chavez told his followers this week that he had prepared 20 decrees to sign into law once the assembly gave him the powers. One of the first will be an increase in the value-added tax that Venezuelans pay on all purchases, with proceeds funding reconstruction caused by the flood damage.
But the opposition is bracing for other decrees that have little to do with the natural disaster. Among them are new laws imposing “social responsibility” rules on the news media, which critics fear could result in further clampdowns on key news outlets and the Internet.
In September elections, opposition candidates won 65 of the assembly’s 165 seats, with Chavez supporters winning 98 and a splinter group winning two. Although non-Chavez candidates won a majority of votes cast, Chavez retained majority control because of gerrymandering.
“The new law may enable the president, but it will disable the new assembly,” said Ismael Garcia of the opposition Podemos Party.