Venezuela tense as defiant deputies take over assembly

Maria Isabel Sanchez
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Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro protest as deputy Henry Ramos Allup, the elected president of the new parliament arrives at his new office in Caracas on January 4, 2016

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro protest as deputy Henry Ramos Allup, the elected president of the new parliament arrives at his new office in Caracas on January 4, 2016 (AFP Photo/Ronaldo Schemidt)

Caracas (AFP) - A tense struggle for control of Venezuela's legislature threatens to come to a head at a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday as opposition lawmakers defy government efforts to weaken their majority.

Opponents and loyalists alike of the country's Socialist leadership have called on their supporters to rally at the National Assembly as an opposition majority takes over for the first time in 17 years.

Facing the toughest challenge yet to his authority from the new assembly, President Nicolas Maduro moved to calm tensions late Monday by saying he had ordered the security forces to ensure the investiture goes ahead peacefully.

He said authorities and the opposition discussed safety measures so that demonstrators "can go out, sing their songs and chant their slogans with enough space so that access to the National Assembly is not obstructed."

The call for rallies raised fears of fresh unrest in the oil-rich, crisis-hit country, where street violence sparked by anti-government protests left 43 people dead in 2014.

The tension around Tuesday's proceedings "underlines the climate of political confrontation and government instability," wrote Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst at research group IHS.

"The armed forces will play a key role behind the scenes."

Maduro also said he would try to get the assembly to support a new economic emergency plan. That could set the stage for yet another serious political clash.

- 'No coups or violence' -

The opposition coalition MUD won a majority in the assembly in elections on December 6, for the first time since 1999, when late socialist president Hugo Chavez came to power.

His successor Maduro has taken judicial steps to reduce the opposition's two-thirds supermajority.

It has appointed new judges to the 32-member Supreme Court, which has granted his request to suspend the swearing-in of three incoming lawmakers over alleged voting fraud.

Losing those three deputies would take away the opposition's supermajority of 112 of the 167 seats in the assembly.

The opposition wants to take constitutional steps to get rid of Maduro, but would be much less likely to succeed without a supermajority.

The MUD insisted its legislators would all turn up to be sworn in on Tuesday, setting up a tense standoff.

Hardline grassroots pro-government groups vowed to take to the streets.

The new opposition lawmakers voted in one of their senior figureheads, Henry Ramos Allup, as the new assembly speaker on Sunday.

He said his side had received assurances from the military that they would prevent "violent groups" from carrying out "acts of intimidation" around the assembly on Tuesday.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino responded that the military should not be drawn into the controversy by those with "political" interests.

"The armed forces are not an institution for subverting constitutional order or disregarding democratic institutions, let alone for launching coups d'etat," he wrote on Twitter.

- Oil-rich and unstable -

Workers at the congressional television channel were being prevented from broadcasting Tuesday's proceedings, said one of the channel's journalists, Betzaida Amaro.

Ramos Allup insisted: "That doesn't matter because we will guarantee that private media can broadcast an event that belongs to all of Venezuela."

The MUD has called for international support to resist what it called a "judicial coup" against its deputies.

Venezuela has the world's biggest known oil reserves but has suffered from a fall in the price of the crude on which its government relies.

It is in deep recession and citizens are suffering shortages of basic goods.

Now its troubles are heightened by political instability.

"The government is not used to having a counterweight to its power and is trying to avoid that at all costs," said analyst Luis Vicente Leon, president of pollster Datanalisis.

"But it is also true that the opposition, after so many years without having power, has forgotten how to use it -- and strike a balance."