Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela, and Bogota, — Venezuela's National Assembly on Friday overwhelmingly approved a law giving President Hugo Chavez broad discretionary powers for 18 months, a measure that opponents claim is meant to undercut their strength in the upcoming assembly session starting next month.
The law gives Chavez power to govern by decree for the fourth time since he took office in 1999 and is necessary, he said, to deal with flooding that has left 40 people dead and 133,000 homeless. During the final debate, the bill was modified to give Chavez more than the 12 months of special powers he had initially requested.
Passage by the 165-member assembly, where Chavez supporters now have more than 90% of seats, was a foregone conclusion. In the first reading earlier this week, the bill passed with 157 in favor and five opposed. 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 through mid-January. Chavez's discretionary authority will extend through all but seven of his remaining 25 months in office.
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.
Special correspondents Mogollon reported from Caracas and Kraul from Bogota.