CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuelan politicians traded insults at the weekend with a showdown looming in the National Assembly over President Nicolas Maduro’s plans to ask for fast-track decree powers he says he needs to combat corruption.
Maduro, who narrowly won an April election to replace his late mentor Hugo Chavez, says he is ready to change “all the laws” if necessary to stamp out widespread graft that is denting his popularity with some core supporters.
The opposition accuses Maduro of turning a blind eye to major corruption by his allies and of trying to use his campaign to distract voters from worries such as inflation, creaking public services and violent crime.
“You don’t need decree powers to fight corruption. That’s part of the ‘show’ by Maduro to cover up his disaster of a government,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Twitter. “It’s certain he doesn’t have the votes to approve it.”
Government officials have not said when Maduro will make the request. He would need the support of three-fifths of the National Assembly, or 99 lawmakers, to grant him the powers through what is known as an Enabling Law.
His ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) currently has 98 seats.
Amid intense speculation over what legislation Maduro might change, Vice President Jorge Arreaza said the goals included toughening sentences for corruption convictions, and he said the government’s plans deserved cross-party backing.
“We assume that all the good lawmakers, those who want to eradicate corruption, wherever they come from, will support the request for an Enabling Law,” Arreaza said on Saturday.
Dozens of people have been arrested for graft in recent weeks, including senior officials at state-run institutions.
Maduro has vowed to go after corruption wherever it originates, but opposition leaders believe they could be targeted if he were granted the powers. There was little collaborative spirit on display in the Assembly last week.
During one particularly torrid session, PSUV members demanded their opposition rivals be investigated for a range of lurid charges, including drug trafficking and running a gay and transvestite prostitution ring.
The opposition denied what it said were trumped up charges, but Maduro said their true face had been exposed.
He said his “tragic-comic” foes were fleeing a debate about the “dramatic proof” which had been presented against them.
“The fascists are desperate because they know that we are catching them red-handed and there’s no escaping from that,” he said during a televised Cabinet meeting. “The people will see.”
His predecessor, Chavez, was criticized for passing more than 100 laws by decree during his 14-year rule, including legislation that allowed him to nationalize major oil projects and increase his influence in the Supreme Court.
Maduro said he was grateful for the support he had received from “decent and patriotic” Venezuelans for his plans to seek the fast-track powers, and said that the government wanted a debate on the issue to be broadcast by all local media.
“I challenge them to a public debate on all the allegations which have been made. One by one, if they want,” he said.
“Everyone will be able to judge with their own eyes. But they don’t even want a debate … they have a stupid mentality.”
Capriles fired back with one of his typical denunciations of the president’s inner circle – and a rallying cry for opposition lawmakers not to be seduced by the efforts to secure the extra vote Maduro needs.
“The most corrupt is the little group of connected-ones and their boss, but more corrupt still are those who switch sides.”