Venezuelan opposition leaders fear President Hugo Chavez will use special decree powers he has requested to override an electoral setback that stripped him of a super-majority in parliament.
Chavez said on Friday he would seek the fast-track powers from the National Assembly for the fourth time in his controversial 11-year rule due to a flooding crisis caused by heavy rains that left more than 120,000 people homeless.
The move also appeared to be an attempt to strengthen his hand before a new parliament convenes on January 5 with a stronger opposition presence.
Chavez did not say how long the decree powers would last, but opponents fear he will request them for a period extending well into the new parliament and to legislate in areas not limited to dealing with the flooding crisis.
The president clearly intends to affect or weaken the power of the lawmakers who are going to enter parliament on January 5, Juan Jose Molina, a lawmaker with opposition party Podemos, said on Saturday.
An opposition coalition made big advances in a September legislative election and hopes to put a brake on Chavez's self-styled 21st century socialism when it takes up 40% of the seats in the new National Assembly.
The current legislature is dominated by Chavez's Socialist United party and has the two-thirds majority needed to pass even major legislation without consulting opponents. It also has the three-fifths majority needed to give the president decree powers.
However after January 5 his party will have only a simple majority, limiting them to passing minor legislation without opposition support. Opponents have long worried Chavez will rush through laws in the outgoing parliament's final days.
Chavez supporters in the assembly have held extended sessions this week to pass laws promoting ‘socialism’ that also weaken mayors and governors. A bill to take some profits from banks and another to regulate the Internet are also pending.
Molina said Chavez would be justified in using the decree powers to speed up relief efforts in response to the flooding.
But I don't think he will limit himself to that. The way he governs is to act incisively toward adversaries and he can take advantage of an opportunity such as this.
The Internet bill proposes applying limits on content in electronic media according to the time of day, with adult content reserved for programming after midnight. Such limitations already are in place for TV and radio programs. It was not clear how they would be applied to the Internet.
The bill also proposes allowing the government to restrict access to websites if they are found to be distributing messages or information that incites violence against the president. Chavez frequently accuses the opposition of plotting to kill him.
Chavez has been criticized by media freedoms groups for forcing an opposition TV station off the air and taking away the licenses of dozens of radio stations.
The government says Venezuela's elite uses the media to undermine Chavez and considers its own one-sided reporting of news as a legitimate response in a communications war.