Venezuela opposition takes congress, defies president
CARACAS - Venezuela's opposition broke the government's 17-year grip on the legislature and vowed to force out President Nicolas Maduro despite failing for the time being to clinch its hoped-for "supermajority."
The National Assembly swore in deputies to 163 of the 167 seats, with four lawmakers -- three opposition and one pro-government -- suspended pending a lawsuit over alleged electoral fraud.
The new opposition speaker of the assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, said his side soon would take steps to force Maduro from office.
"Here and now, things will change," he said.
The head of the opposition group in congress, Julio Borges, vowed it would find "a method, a system to change the government through constitutional means."
The speaker said the process would be worked out within six months.
"Change is not dependent on any time-frame," Ramos Allup stressed. "We are looking at a change in outlook, a change in the system, at changing what is bad, very bad -- and soon will get worse."
The provisional loss of its three deputies leaves the opposition with a still-powerful three-fifths majority, enabling it to remove cabinet ministers from their posts, among other powers.
But it removes, at least temporarily, some powers Maduro's opponents would have had with a two-thirds "supermajority", including the ability to put legislation to a referendum and convene an assembly to draft a new constitution.
The opposition could use those powers to seek to force Maduro from power before the end of his term in 2019. It was not immediately clear what path within the constitution they might use.
But Maduro said he would defend Venezuela's democracy and stability "with an iron fist."
Lawmakers loyal to Maduro staged a walkout from the opening session of the new assembly.
They were outraged by opposition lawmakers' attempts to propose an amnesty for numerous politicians who the opposition says are political prisoners.
Crisis in oil state
The opposition MUD coalition has vowed change in the oil-rich, crisis-hit South American nation after 17 years of socialist rule. But Maduro still holds many of the cards under the presidential system.
"The assembly can approve whatever laws it likes, but the president is the one who endorses them," said the assembly's outgoing speaker, Diosdado Cabello.
"If there is any disagreement, the president can veto a law or refer to the Supreme Court."
The MUD won a supermajority of 112 seats in the assembly in elections on December 6, but Maduro has taken steps to curb its powers.
The Supreme Court last week upheld a request by Maduro to suspend the three opposition lawmakers. One pro-Maduro deputy targeted by the same fraud allegations was also suspended.
The commission in charge of swearing in the new deputies, led by a government ally, declined to accept those four until the court case is resolved.
Maduro has vowed to defend the welfare programs of the socialist "revolution" launched by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez, who came to power in 1999.
But voters punished him for the state of the economy, in the toughest challenge yet to his authority.
Venezuela has the world's biggest known oil reserves but has suffered from a fall in the price of the crude on which its government relies.
It is in deep recession, with citizens suffering shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation.
Fears of unrest
The tense political struggle has raised fears of fresh unrest after street violence sparked by anti-government protests left 43 people dead in 2014.
Maduro carried out further maneuvers to resist his opponents shortly before the new assembly was formed.
He published a presidential decree that gives him the power to appoint the heads of Venezuela's Central Bank.
That snatches away the assembly's power to influence monetary policy, one of the key levers for change in the current economic crisis.
Maduro also said he would try to get the assembly to support a new economic emergency plan, setting up yet another political clash.
The US State Department expressed concern over the case of the suspended deputies, in a statement by its spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday. He called for political prisoners to be released.
"We remain concerned by the controversy surrounding the seating of some elected representatives and call for a resolution of this dispute in a manner that is transparent and reflects the preferences of the Venezuelan voters," he said.