Chavez given power to rule by decree for 18 months
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been granted power to rule by decree for 18 months by his followers in parliament.
His critics said the move turns the country into a near-dictatorship. It comes just two weeks before a new national assembly is sworn in with a larger opposition bloc that could have frustrated some of his plans to create a socialist state.
The firebrand leader had only asked his allies for the right to govern without referring to congress for a year. Instead, they handed him the powers for 18 months as proof of their "revolutionary commitment", said Cilia Flores, the national assembly president.
The official reason for the move was to allow Mr Chavez to deal with the devastating aftermath of weeks of floods by fast-tracking tax increases and funding for construction of new homes.
But amid a fresh wave of nationalisations of farms and businesses, he has already outlined a long list of new laws that extend far beyond relief and reconstruction.
He taunted the incoming opposition congressmen in a television address.
"You won't be able to make a single law, little Yankees," he said, deploying one of his favourite insults, which depicts his opponents as American stooges.
"We're going to see how you make laws now."
The 18-month period means the opposition will be blocked from any significant role in Venezuelan politics until just months before the 2012 presidential election.
The lame-duck parliament dominated by Chavez allies is also planning a revised "Social Responsibility Law" which would impose tough regulations on the internet and ban online messages "that could incite or promote hatred," create "anxiety" in the population or "disrespect public authorities". The country's broadcast media already faces similar controls.
The law granting presidential decree powers – for the fourth time in his nearly 12-year presidency – also will allow him to enact measures involving telecommunications, the banking system, information technology, the military, rural and urban land use and the country's "socio-economic system."
His foes accused him of taking advantage of the floods to stage a crude power grab by violating the constitution as he tried to impose a Cuban-style system.
Julio Borges, a recently-elected congressman, said the opposition will keep fighting and that "the Cuban project is going to fail."
The new congress takes office on Jan 5 with 67 of the 165 seats controlled by the opposition – which would have been enough to remove the two-thirds majority needed to approve some types of major legislation and to confirm Supreme Court justices.
Anticipating that shift, pro-Chavez lawmakers earlier this month appointed nine new Supreme Court justices, reinforcing the dominance of judges widely seen as friendly to his government.
Lawmakers on Friday also approved a separate law that describes banking as a "public service" and clears the way for increased state intervention in the sector. Venezuela's private banks make up about 70pc of the industry, while the government controls the rest.
The moves seem aimed at intimidating opponents and neutralising potential obstacles ahead of the presidential race. In September's parliamentary elections, the pro- and anti-Chavez camps emerged with a nearly even split of the popular vote.