Caracas - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro went to parliament on Tuesday to seek decree powers that he says are essential to tackle corruption and fix the economy but opponents view as proof he wants to rule as an autocrat.
The National Assembly, where Maduro's socialist government has a nearly two-thirds majority, will schedule a vote on the request next week and is widely expected to grant him the fast-track legislative powers in a revival of a measure used several times by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
Maduro, 50, says he needs the so-called Enabling Law for 12 months to toughen a crackdown on corruption in the South American OPEC nation as well as tackle economic problems that have become the main challenge of his young presidency.
“We've come to ask for decree powers that will give us a solid legal basis to act quickly and firmly against this badness, this sickness,” he told lawmakers after arriving to the cheers of supporters who lined streets around the assembly.
“If corruption continues and perpetuates the destructive logic of capitalism, there won't be socialism here anymore ... Corruption must stop being a normal part of our political life.”
Only introducing “extremely severe” punishments for graft could put the country on the right path, he said, urging Venezuelans to reject corruption wherever it originated, in the opposition ranks or among his own “Chavista” supporters.
“It's the same gangsterism, however it's dressed up.”
Opposition leaders, however, suspect Maduro will try to use the special powers to attack them and to push through new laws that have nothing to do with the fight against graft.
In its latest annual index of perceptions of corruption, global watchdog Transparency International ranked Venezuela as the ninth most corrupt country in the world.
Having risen from a Caracas bus driver to Chavez's vice-president, Maduro won an April election to succeed him after his death from cancer.
Opponents mock Maduro as a poor imitation of Chavez, Venezuela's leader of 14 years, arguing that he is ruining the country by continuing the same model of authoritarian leadership and failed leftist economic policies.
In a long speech that hailed the late Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and quoted South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, Maduro said decree powers would let him “deepen, accelerate and fight until the end for a new political ethic, a new republican life, and a new society.”
Though he has ordered no new state takeovers of businesses, the president has kept in place controversial Chavez-era currency controls and the black market price of dollars has soared to seven times higher than the official rate.
Inflation, a decades-old problem in Venezuela, is at an annual 45 percent, and the restricted access to dollars has fuelled a shortage of imported goods ranging from toilet paper and motorcycle parts to communion wine.
Having repeatedly promised to ease the country's complex currency controls to let a greater flow of dollars reach importers, Maduro may initially use decree powers to tinker with the complicated foreign exchange regime.
Maduro says Washington is helping the local opposition wage an “economic war” against Venezuela. Last week, he expelled three US diplomats he accused of plotting with anti-government activists to damage the power grid and commit other sabotage.
The president likens the current accumulation of problems to the 2002-2003 period of Chavez's rule, when there was a brief coup and an oil sector strike against him.
Chanting from the public gallery of the National Assembly, Maduro's supporters interrupted his speech to sing “That's how you govern!” and “With Chavez and Maduro, the people are safe!”
Opposition leaders, in a nation of 29 million people broadly split 50:50 between pro- and anti-government supporters, accuse Maduro of inventing excuses to cover up his own incompetence and the dysfunctional economy he inherited from Chavez.
“Maduro and his gang will be remembered as presiding over the most corrupt period in the history of Venezuela,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said.
“This law that he wants is in order to distract the people from their problems. Decree powers will not help the government be successful.”
The last time Chavez was granted decree powers - in 2010 for 18 months - it caused a political uproar, despite his insistence that he needed them to deal with a national emergency caused by floods that made nearly 140 000 people homeless.
The late socialist leader passed nearly 200 laws by decree during his time in office, including legislation that allowed him to nationalise major oil projects and increase his influence in the Supreme Court. - Reuters