Caracas, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Tuesday asked congress to grant him special powers to enact laws by decree for one year, just before a new legislature takes office with a larger contingent of opposition lawmakers.
The measure would give the president the ability to bypass the National Assembly for the fourth time since he was first elected almost 12 years ago.
Vice President Elías Jaua made the request on Chávez’s behalf, saying the president will use the authorization to ensure fast-track approval of laws aimed at helping the nation recover from severe flooding and mudslides that left thousands homeless and in government shelters.
“The measures we have to take are deep. Almost 40 percent of the country was affected” by the heavy rains, Jaua said.
It is expected to win easy approval in the outgoing legislature dominated by Chávez allies.
Chávez’s opponents accuse him of using the natural disaster to impose socialist-inspired measures and undermine the power of newly elected opposition lawmakers.
Hundreds of Chávez opponents protested outside the legislature Tuesday, saying Chávez is violating democratic principles and objecting to other planned laws that could impose regulations on the Internet and endanger Globovision, the country’s last stridently anti-Chávez television channel.
Decrees planned in the next two weeks include laws to speed construction of housing and roads, increase the value-added tax and develop projects involving farming and use of urban lands, Jaua said.
He said Chávez aims to pass laws dealing with vital services after the disaster and in areas including infrastructure, land use, the banking sector, defense, and the “socio-economic system of the nation.”
Jaua also mentioned plans to legislate in the area of “international cooperation.” Chávez has urged lawmakers to pass a law barring non-governmental organizations such as human rights groups from receiving U.S. funding.
Newly elected opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said the measures being taken up by the National Assembly in its final days go against the will of the voters.
“As elected deputies, we’re asking for a meeting between the new assembly and the old one, so that people are respected — the voters and the constitution,” Borges told reporters.
Chávez announced the plan to seek decree powers last Friday, and some critics suggested he intended to push through controversial measures during the holidays while many Venezuelans are focusing on their families.
Opposition newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff called it a “Christmas ambush,” writing in his daily Tal Cual that Chávez is preparing totalitarian measures that amount to “a brutal attack … against democratic life.”
In his nearly 12 years in office, the leftist Chávez has been granted temporary decree powers three times by lawmakers, in 1999, 2001 and 2007.
The last time, he enjoyed special legislative powers for 18 months and used them to seize control of privately run oil fields, impose new taxes and nationalize telecommunications, electricity and cement companies.
Chávez supporters have dominated the National Assembly since the opposition boycotted 2005 elections, but the opposition gained ground in September elections.
Starting Jan. 5, Chávez will face 66 opponents among the 165 lawmakers, a group large enough to challenge some government measures and prevent him from holding a two-thirds majority — the threshold needed to approve some laws, such as granting the president decree powers.
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