By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro has promised to step up a pre-election "economic offensive" that has resulted in inspections of hundreds of Venezuelan businesses for price gouging and caused crowds to flock to shops to take advantage of state-ordered discounts.
Since the weekend, soldiers and government inspectors have gone into 1,400 shops, taken over operations at an electronics firm and a battery-making company, begun prosecutions of nearly 30 retail managers, and also rounded up a handful of looters.
The move - Maduro's boldest since taking office in April - is reminiscent of the dramatic governing style of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who nationalized large swathes of the OPEC member's economy during his 14-year socialist rule.
Like Chavez, Maduro says he is defending the poor.
The inspections have shaken Venezuela three weeks before local elections that his enemies are casting as a referendum on the 50-year-old former bus driver. Maduro has made preserving Chavez's legacy the mainstay of his government and has been matching his former mentor's anti-capitalist rhetoric.
"There is not going to be any turning back or repentance!" Maduro thundered in a speech late on Wednesday, apologizing for not starting the inspections sooner.
"We are facing down barbaric capitalism."
Only a few of 1,400 shops targeted with surprise inspections had been found to be offering fair prices, Maduro added.
Some businesses are voluntarily lowering prices - or staying closed - in case the inspectors come.
"We've reduced everything by 10 to 15 percent, but it's not fair. I can't make a profit now," said the owner of one small electronics store, who asked not to be identified.
"I agree they should go for the big fish, the real speculators, but they risk hurting us all."
Fanning around the nation and often reporting back to Maduro on live TV, officials accuse businesses of hiking prices by 1,000 percent or more in some cases. Venezuela's official inflation, 54 percent annually, is the highest in the Americas.
Around Caracas and other major cities, crowds of shoppers are flooding electronics, clothing and any other outlets where price cuts are anticipated. There has been some violence.
The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflicts reported 39 incidents of looting or attempted looting since Friday. "We ask officials to moderate language in speeches that could be interpreted as calls to violence," it said.
The rhetoric on both sides, however, is becoming more strident.
MADURO: "I'M NO LOOTER"
The campaign to reduce prices and blame private entrepreneurs may play well with Maduro's power base among the poor and could help unite factions within the ruling Socialist Party.
Given Venezuelans' anxiety over inflation, and scarcities of basic goods from toilet paper to milk, Maduro was risking a backlash at the December 8 nationwide municipal elections.
Plenty of Venezuelans have applauded his measures, saying price hikes were out of control, while others have expressed fears that Maduro could be uncorking dangerous forces.
Critics say the moves do not tackle the roots of Venezuela's economic malaise, like an overvalued currency that forces many importers to buy black market dollars then pass those costs onto consumers.
The government has ordered local telecom companies to block various websites showing the bolivar at 10 times the official rate of 6.3 to the greenback on the illegal market.
Prominent pro-opposition columnist Nelson Bocaranda said Maduro's economic policies were "chillingly similar" to those of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. The African leader also used security forces to enforce a price crackdown in 2007.
Opposition party Justice First accused the state of hypocrisy, saying its stores were also hiking prices unjustifiably.
An imported sandwich-toaster, for example, that costs $34.99 in the United States, was selling at a fivefold markup for 1,100 bolivars ($175 at the official exchange rate) in state supermarket chain Bicentenario, it said.
"This shows the economic chaos Maduro has got us in where prices have no logic. The government created this monster and now tries to pretend it will control it, but Venezuelans cannot be deceived by this electoral show," Justice First said.
Like Chavez did on several occasions, Maduro is seeking decree powers from Congress, which approved his request in a first reading on Thursday. He says he needs the Enabling Law to resolve Venezuela's economic problems, but critics accuse Maduro of simply amassing power.
"It's half done! We are the voice of Chavez," said National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello after the two-thirds of votes needed to approve the law in first reading was reached. The legislature is expected to pass the law in a second reading on Tuesday.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Lisa Shumaker)