Venezuela sinks deeper into messy political crisis

January 13, 2016, 4:44am

The president of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, attends a session in Caracas on Tuesday. Picture: AFP on Business Day Live 

AFP on Business Day Live

CARACAS — Venezuela sank deeper into a messy political crisis on Tuesday as the opposition-controlled National Assembly suspended its session and President Nicolas Maduro’s party proposed the Supreme Court take over legislative powers.

Speaking before a nearly empty chamber, speaker Henry Ramos Allup declared the National Assembly lacked a quorum in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that declared the current legislature null and void because of the presence of three banned opposition lawmakers.

His predecessor, Diosdado Cabello, Mr Maduro’s number two official, meanwhile said his camp would ask the Supreme Court to rule on whether the court’s own constitutional chamber could take on legislative powers amid the standoff.

"We’re going to go to the Supreme Court of Justice... to request clarification and see what happens with a legislative void, because the president isn’t going to violate the constitution," Mr Cabello told journalists.

Under Venezuela’s constitution, Mr Maduro must present his annual report to the National Assembly by Friday — which he may not be able to do if the legislature is not in session.

The temporary legislative vacuum complicates a messy political crisis for reeling oil giant Venezuela, where the opposition won a landslide victory in legislative elections last month but is fighting what it calls a biased Supreme Court to cling to its powerful two-thirds majority.

The opposition had initially vowed to press ahead with the legislative session in defiance of the Supreme Court’s latest ruling.

But Ramos Allup, a fiery Mr Maduro opponent, suspended the session until Wednesday morning, promising the opposition would give a "detailed statement" on the court ruling then.

No lawmakers from Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were in the legislature on Tuesday and just a handful of deputies from the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) were there.

Legislative sources said the opposition was consulting its lawyers to decide how to respond to the Supreme Court.

The court ruled on Monday that all actions taken by the current National Assembly are invalid because it includes the three lawmakers from Amazonas state, where an investigation is under way into alleged vote-buying in the December 6 elections.

The opposition’s win triggered a crisis for Mr Maduro and the "revolution" launched by his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 1999.

But the suspension of the three lawmakers’ inauguration threatens to strip MUD of the powerful "super-majority" it had vowed to use to force Mr Maduro from power within six months.

Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, has sunk ever deeper into economic crisis as crude prices have plunged in recent months.

A deep recession and what analysts say is the world’s highest inflation rate have fueled discontent with Mr Maduro, whose term runs until 2019.

Wading into the institutional standoff, the secretary general of the Organisation of American States, Luis Almagro, called for the balance of powers in Venezuela to be respected, "especially... when the people have spoken" — a reference to MUD’s landmark election win.

The Supreme Court has emerged as a powerful player as Venezuela embarks on a new era of divided government.

A week before the 167-member legislature’s inauguration, the court barred the three opposition lawmakers from taking their seats, effectively scrapping MUD’s two-thirds majority.

Ramos Allup, the new speaker, defiantly swore them in anyway, setting up a messy political and legal battle.

The disputed "super-majority" gives the opposition the power to remove Supreme Court judges from the bench, as well as put legislation to a referendum and call an assembly to draft a new constitution.

Just hours before the court ruling, MUD lawmakers had launched a legislative committee to probe alleged irregularities in the appointment of 13 judges to the 32-member Supreme Court.

The PSUV used an extraordinary session in the final hours of its legislative majority to push through the judges’ appointment, a move the opposition condemned as undemocratic.

The suspension of the legislature comes after MUD lawmakers introduced a bill on Monday on one of their top initiatives, an amnesty for 75 jailed opposition figures they say are political prisoners.

The bill was tabled by Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to 14 years in September on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests — a ruling that drew international condemnation.