CARACAS Dec 13 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is set to decree a batch of laws after requesting special powers from parliament to speed up relief efforts for more than 120,000 people left homeless by rains.
Opponents fear the flamboyant socialist leader will use the powers to undermine their strength in the South American nation's new parliament beginning on Jan. 5. [ID:nN11265079]
Here are questions and answers about the decree powers, which parliament is expected to grant Chavez this week:
WHY IS CHAVEZ ALLOWED TO RULE BY DECREE?
Under Venezuelan law, parliament can give the president fast-track powers if four-fifths of lawmakers approve the motion. Since the opposition boycotted legislative elections in 2005, only a small block of lawmakers oppose Chavez in the current parliament. He has used such powers three times already since taking office in 1999 and passed more than 100 laws by decree including legislation that let him nationalize major oil projects and increase his influence in the Supreme Court.
WHY IS CHAVEZ ASKING FOR THESE POWERS NOW?
Lashed for weeks by heavy rain, Venezuela needs millions of dollars to build new roads and rehouse the homeless, many from precarious hillside slums now too dangerous to reinhabit. Chavez says he needs to fast-track laws covering housing, farming, food, infrastructure and the economy "with the aim of definitively resolving the emergency."
Leading opposition journalist Teodoro Petkoff questioned Chavez's logic, saying the president's request was "theater" designed to distract attention from the fact that over the course of 12 years the government has failed to adequately build decent housing for the poor.
Others in the opposition believe the president's real purpose is to limit opponents' authority in the new parliament, which convenes on Jan. 5.
It is not clear what laws Chavez will pass in the next few weeks, but an emergency housing law allowing the government to seize disused land in cities, new rules to regulate the Internet and a law that will take some profits from banks are among bills currently on the parliamentary agenda.
WHY IS THE OPPOSITION WARY OF THE MOVE?
An alliance of opposition parties won more than a third of parliamentary seats in September elections, giving them power in the new assembly to block the passage of major new legislation, which requires a two-thirds super majority to be approved. Chavez has not yet specified for how long he plans to request the special powers, but the fear is he will use them well into next year, allowing him to ride roughshod over the opposition parties' new strength.
After Jan. 5, Chavez's Socialist Party will be one seat short of the 99 votes needed to give him decree powers. Many among the opposition argue it will be illegal to use such powers beyond that date. The Socialist Party is also disputing a seat they lost by a small margin in the Sept. 30 vote. A result in their favor would give Chavez the power to call for decree powers in the future.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR DEMOCRACY IN VENEZUELA?
Chavez is within his rights to request these powers, at least during the next three weeks, but he risks tarnishing his democratic credentials if he chooses to use them well into the next parliament. Chavez has always accepted the results of elections, most of which he has won. But he took steps to weaken the authority of opposition leaders who stripped him of several states and city halls in a 2008 vote. Most notably, he cut back powers and budget from Antonio Ledezma, an opponent who was elected as Caracas mayor. Ledezma is still mayor, but his authority is diminished and an official named by Chavez now carries out many of his functions.
Last week Chavez's lawmakers named nine new Supreme Court judges, rushing their appointments through before Jan. 5, after which the government would have to negotiate the selection of such high officials with the opposition.
With his relentless pressure on opposition media, domination of the courts, and the use of legal proceedings against powerful critics, Chavez is open to accusations he is autocratic.
Many poor people in Venezuela however, say the president has ushered in more democracy through increased participation in politics and decision making, with grass-roots councils and other organizations giving communities funding for public works. (Additional reporting by Patricia Rondon, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Doina Chiacu)