Chavez Nearing Decree Powers as Opposition Lawmakers Jump Fence

Hugo Chavez’s coalition in the National Assembly is one vote short of the three-fifths majority needed to grant the Venezuelan president sweeping powers to pass laws without congressional approval.

The ruling alliance has 98 of 165 lawmakers in the assembly after opposition deputy Hernan Nunez said Feb. 5 he was switching sides. He joins lawmakers William Ojeda and David Paraqueima, who switched allegiance last year.

Chavez, who named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his successor before undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba Dec. 11, was granted decree powers to pass laws without congressional authorization for 18 months in December 2010 for the fourth time in his presidency. He said he needed the law to fast-track legislation following heavy rains. In 2008, he used the same powers to pass laws similar to ones that had been rejected in a 2007 referendum.

“An enabling law is important because not only does it assign powers to the executive, it also allows them to circumvent the National Assembly as a political forum,” Colette Capriles, a political analyst at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, said in a phone interview Feb. 6.

In 2008, Chavez signed 26 new laws in the last days of an 18-month period of decree powers, including changes to bank regulation. The 58-year-old former paratrooper hasn’t been seen or heard in public since state television broadcast images of him stepping off a plane in Havana Dec. 10.

Fence Jumping

Nunez broke ranks with the opposition alliance on live television during a parliamentary session Feb. 5 in which National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello accused lawmakers from the opposition of receiving financial contributions without declaring them to the electoral board. Nunez called on Cabello to continue investigating the alleged corruption, then left his seat in the opposition bank to be welcomed with pats on the back and handshakes from pro-government lawmakers.

Cabello showed photocopies of checks allegedly received by lawmaker Richard Mardo, including one for 200,000 bolivars ($46,512).

Mardo in response said Cabello had tried to blackmail him by promising not to expose him in Congress if he switched allegiances. Cabello didn’t respond to a phone call and text message seeking comment.

“The government thinks that through these fence jumpers it can gain the votes it needs for that majority,” said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas.

Chavez has governed by decree for four and a half of his 14 years in power. He used those powers in 2008 to strip the legislature’s oversight of government borrowing, give him control of appointing regional officials, and allow a wide range of interventions in the economy.

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