11th-hour sweeping powers for Venezuelan president

CARACAS, Jan. 5, 2011 – Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez began the new year with special powers to implement his “21st century socialism”, while the opposition returned to the legislature Wednesday after a five-year absence.

Because the opposition boycotted the 2005 legislative elections alleging distrust of the electoral authorities — although international observers found no evidence of fraud – Congress, over the last five years, was basically made up of supporters of Chávez, who has been in office since 1999.

In the September 2010 legislative elections, the opposition won 65 seats. And although Chávez still has a majority of 98 seats, the opposition’s comeback has raised its hopes of regaining control of the central government in 2013.

The 30 or so laws passed in the space of just four weeks by the outgoing legislature, which in December held extra sessions morning, afternoon and evening, sometimes even stretching into the wee hours of the morning, strengthened the government’s control over the public administration, banks, the media, non-governmental organizations and political parties.

They also transferred more funds and power from regional and municipal authorities to communal councils. The areas in which these local citizen’s assemblies will be given more responsibilities include health and education.

The communal councils are a strong support base for Chávez.

A couple of laws limit congressional sessions, debate times and the way laws can be drawn up and passed in the new legislature.

One of the laws passed in December punishes legislators who switch political parties or break ranks, when voting, with the party for which they were elected to the single-chamber National Assembly.

The “enabling law”, meanwhile, gives Chávez powers to govern by decree for 18 months in eight broad areas, from the economy and social matters to communications and questions involving the military and police.

The president and lawmakers from his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) justified the sweeping legislative powers as necessary to respond to the emergency created by the November rains and flooding, which left 132,000 people homeless, especially in the northern part of this South American country of 28 million.

“This is a mockery of the people, a severe attack on the country’s democratic institutions,” Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, coordinator of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) opposition coalition, told IPS. “Once more the government has shown its authoritarian, arbitrary and anti-democratic nature.”

Opponents of the government, including political, business and religious leaders and NGOs, have described the laws as “a coup d’état by instalments” or the start of “the creation of a communist system” in Venezuela.

“We are not in dictatorship, but the laws approved expand not only control over the public administration, which Chávez already had, but over society, the media, sports, culture, the economy and NGOs,” said Teodoro Petkoff, a vociferous critic of Chávez who is editor of the opposition-aligned newspaper Tal Cual.

The opposition hopes, nevertheless, that if it plays its cards right and the government mishandles the economy and services in the hands of the state, Chávez will fail in his planned attempt to be re-elected to a fourth term in late 2012.

What is going on? One answer could be found in remarks by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Chávez’s political mentor.

As Castro said in an interview with Ignacio Ramonet, then editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, “there is no road map for building socialism.” Chávez himself has cited this quote repeatedly to justify his constant redesign and even improvisation of policies.

The other is that the Venezuelan leader “is good in defence and on the offensive, but even better in the counterattack.”

Counterattack was the spate of new laws passed in December, after the Sept. 26 elections, which represented a watershed in Venezuelan politics.

In the elections, the governing PSUV took 5.4 million votes, representing 48.1 percent of the total, the MUD won 5.3 million votes, or 47.2 percent, and the Fatherland for All (PPT), a left-wing group that broke with Chávez last year, took 354,000 votes, or 3.1 percent.

But because of the distribution of seats by circuit and regional party slates, the difference is much more marked in Congress, where the PSUV has 98 seats, the MUD has 65 and the PPT has two.

As soon as the “enabling law” was passed, Chávez announced that he had 20 laws ready to be decreed.

Political scientist John Magdalena said, “The first aim of the set of laws is to demoralise the opposition and show the country that the government will continue marching steadily ahead towards the construction of socialism.”

Dismissing his critics and defending the new laws as necessary to “attack the structural causes” of the damages caused by the late 2010 rains, Chávez said “There are people who are constantly saying that there is a dictatorship here. You can say whatever you like — I am here to serve my people and the needy.”

Groups of students took to the streets during the year-end holidays to protest a new law that they said would undermine the autonomy of universities, and the MUD held a rally in central Caracas to celebrate the opposition’s return to parliament.

On Tuesday night, Chávez announced that he would not sign the law on universities that he had presented to the legislature, and backtracked on his previously stated intention to raise the value-added sales tax by two or three percentage points, from the current 11 percent. Annual inflation in Venezuela currently stands at 27 percent.

Surprisingly, he cut short the counterattack. (IPS/GIN)

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