Venezuela’s opposition took majority control of the country’s National Assembly on Tuesday after years in the political wilderness, setting the stage for a potential power struggle with embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Lawmakers were sworn in during a heated parliamentary session that saw pro-government representatives walk out in protest after pushing their way onto the dais as the new leadership tried to lay out its legislative agenda.
It is the first time in 17 years, since elections in December 1998, that opponents of the socialist revolution begun by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez have held a majority in the legislature, and many leaders seemed rapt in disbelief.
The opposition won a two-thirds majority in a landslide election victory last month, giving it unprecedented strength to challenge Maduro’s rule. However, that key super-majority is now in doubt after a government-stacked Supreme Court barred four lawmakers from taking their seats at the last minute while it considers allegations of electoral fraud. As a result, only 163 of 167 lawmakers were sworn in during Tuesday’s ceremony.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of opposition supporters accompanied the incoming lawmakers past a heavy military barricade to the neoclassical legislature downtown. A few blocks away, a much larger crowd of government supporters gathered outside the presidential palace to lament the inauguration of what they call a “bourgeois parliament” intent on “legislating slavery.”
The dueling marches were tame compared to the chanting and shoving inside the chamber.
Reflecting the changing political winds, journalists were granted access to the legislature for the first time in years and state TV broadcast interviews with opposition leaders. Conspicuously absent inside the domed building were the oversize portraits of Chavez giving a salute and independence hero Simon Bolivar that had been a fixture for years.
Instead, from the public gallery, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez held up a sign reading: “Amnesty Now,” referring to what is likely to be the legislature’s first order of business: a law freeing dozens of activists jailed during anti-government protests in 2014 that resulted in dozens of deaths.
“Keep a strong hand,” 65-year-old Mary Mujica shouted as the incoming parliamentary president, Henry Ramos, muscled his way through the crowd.
“There is a criminal conspiracy running the country; you cannot negotiate with criminals,” she said.
Opposition lawmakers promise sweeping changes, while the socialists have been equally adamant that the legislature not erode social gains of Chavez’s revolution.
The 72-year-old Ramos, a sharp-tongued, pre-Chavez-era politician who beat out moderates in the opposition coalition to take the president’s gavel, reiterated in his inaugural remarks his commitment to a six-month deadline to remove Maduro by constitutional means, echoing demands made by hardliners during the 2014 protests.
Moderates have criticized that strategy and instead advocate pragmatic steps to wrench the economy out of a tailspin marked by triple-digit inflation and the world’s deepest recession.
What unites the two factions is an agenda of probing government corruption and freeing opposition figures that they and many human rights groups consider political prisoners. It is a polarizing issue that also promises to rally government supporters.
“It is completely illogical,’’ the outgoing National Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, said of the proposed amnesty law. “It is like the assassins pardoning themselves.”
Jennifer McCoy, a longtime observer of Venezuela elections for a pro-democracy group founded by former US president Jimmy Carter, said the coming weeks will tell whether the government and opposition can put aside their mutual hatred.
“This is the moment when both sides need to determine how to move forward: whether they are going to work together or engage in a battle royal,” McCoy said.
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