|Venezuela’s National Assembly has granted President Nicolas Maduro wide-ranging special powers to rule by decree for one year so that he can fix the economy.
Tuesday’s vote over the Enabling Law is the latest move by the elected Venezuelan leader, a protégé of the late President Hugo Chavez, to strengthen his hand as he faces an important political test in municipal elections next month.
The decree will essentially allow Maduro to create laws without parliamentary approval.
He says he needs greater personal power to stamp out opponents who are waging “economic warfare against his government” as the country struggles with soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods.
“Maduro has to tackle an economy in free fall,” Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher, reporting from the Venezuelan capital Caracas, said.
“People are really struggling to buy normal household goods.”
Over the weekend, Maduro used his existing authority to make retail appliance stores slash prices, sending troops to keep order among the crowds that quickly formed.
The Venezuelan unit of General Motors was fined the equivalent of $85,000 on Tuesdsay for allegedly overcharging and practising “usury” in the sale of car parts to local concessionaires.
The government also asked Twitter to take down accounts of users posting the illegal black market exchange rate for the country’s bolivar currency, which is trading at about one-tenth of the official value.
These measures have rallied Maduro’s working-class base and even won approval from some government opponents who have joined the long lines outside appliance stores nationwide for the past 10 days in search of deep discounts on TV sets and refrigerators.
The deep discounts of as much as 60 percent – which Maduro has said would be extended to toys, cars and clothing – come as workers cash their year-end pay bonuses, allowing them to make purchases that might otherwise have been out of reach.
The country has been repeatedly battered by a 54 percent inflation rate, a shortage of hard currency and basic goods.
Critics, however, blame Venezuela’s economic hardship on the government-imposed fixed exchange rate and price controls which they say have led to a shortage of basic goods such as rice and meat.
The vote to approve the so-called Enabling Law had been widely expected after Maduro garnered the two-thirds support he needed, or 99 votes, during a preliminary debate last week.
The move added to the opposition’s speculation that this was a thinly veiled power grab.
After Tuesday’s vote, Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president, led a march of more than 2,000 supporters from the legislature to the presidential palace to deliver the text of the decree law to Maduro.
Addressing a crowd smaller than the ones Chavez was accustomed to drawing, Maduro reiterated a pledge to use his expanded powers to keep prices low across industries and limit profit margins to 30 percent.
He also pledgegd to start 2014 with a frontal attack on corruption.
“They underestimated me; they said Maduro was an amateur,” he told the crowd. But “what you’ve seen is little compared to what we’re going to do”.
The legislative process leading up to Tuesday’s vote was marred by controversy after an opposition congresswoman was stripped of her immunity from prosecution over corruption charges, allowing for her substitution by a pro-government legislator who gave Maduro the crucial 99th vote needed to prevail.