Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez asked congress Tuesday to grant him special powers to enact laws by decree for one year, just before a new legislature takes office with a larger contingent of opposition lawmakers.
The measure, which quickly received initial approval from the overwhelming majority of pro-Chavez lawmakers, would give the president the authority to bypass the National Assembly for the fourth time since he was first elected almost 12 years ago.
Vice President Elias Jaua made the request on Chavez's behalf, saying the president will use the authorization to ensure fast-track approval of laws aimed at helping the nation recover from severe flooding and mudslides that left thousands homeless and in government shelters.
"The measures we have to take are deep. Almost 40 percent of the country was affected" by the heavy rains, Jaua said.
Only five of the assembly's 165 lawmakers voted against the proposal Tuesday. The legislature, which is dominated by Chavez allies, is expected to give final approval to the measure before the end of the week.
Chavez's opponents accuse him of using the natural disaster to impose socialist-inspired measures and undermine the power of newly elected opposition lawmakers.
Hundreds of Chavez opponents protested outside the legislature Tuesday, saying Chavez is violating democratic principles and objecting to other planned laws that could impose regulations on the Internet and endanger Globovision, the country's last stridently anti-Chavez television channel.
Decrees planned in the next two weeks include laws to speed construction of housing and roads and increase the value-added tax, Jaua said.
"The situation continues to be critical, and we need to tend to it with a set of laws," Chavez said while visiting a Caracas military base along with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador.
Chavez said he has yet to determine how much to raise the value-added tax, which is now 12 percent. He said the government estimates damage from the heavy rains at about $10 billion.
A draft of the law says Chavez is also seeking powers to issue decrees in areas including the country's "socio-economic system," telecommunications, the banking system, information technology, the military, rural and urban land use, and a "new geographical regionalization of the country."
"All of these laws will be within the framework of the constitution," Chavez said on state television.
Newly elected opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said the measures being taken up by the National Assembly in its final days go against the will of the voters.
"As elected deputies, we're asking for a meeting between the new assembly and the old one, so that people are respected — the voters and the constitution," Borges told reporters.
Chavez announced the plan to seek decree powers Friday, and some critics suggested he intended to push through controversial measures during the holidays while many Venezuelans are focusing on their families.
Opposition newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff called it a "Christmas ambush," writing in his daily Tal Cual that Chavez is preparing totalitarian measures that amount to "a brutal attack ... against democratic life."
In his nearly 12 years in office, the leftist Chavez has been granted temporary decree powers three times by lawmakers, in 1999, 2001 and 2007.
The last time, he enjoyed special legislative powers for 18 months and used them to seize control of privately run oil fields, impose new taxes and nationalize telecommunications, electricity and cement companies.
Chavez supporters have dominated the National Assembly since the opposition boycotted 2005 elections, but the opposition gained ground in September elections.
Starting Jan. 5, Chavez will face 66 opponents among the 165 lawmakers, a group large enough to challenge some government measures and prevent him from holding a two-thirds majority — the threshold needed to approve some laws, such as granting the president decree powers.