Venezuela’s long-suffering democracy was dealt a near-deadly blow Wednesday, when the country’s Supreme Court seized what power remained in the democratically elected National Assembly, leaving President Nicolas Maduro with virtually unrestricted authority.
Venezuelan authorities called on the country’s Supreme Court to review its decision, which critics have decried as a “coup” and a lurch to dictatorship.
President Nicolas Maduro said in a midnight address on state television that the conflict between the Supreme Court and National Assembly had been overcome, but gave no details.
Maduro, flanked by senior officials, introduced his Vice President Tareck El Aissami who said:
“(We) urge the Supreme Court to review the decisions … in order to maintain institutional stability and the balance of powers.”
Having already shot down most of the National Assembly’s measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court on Wednesday said it was taking over the legislature’s role because it was in “contempt” of the law.
The court’s move to assume Congress’ responsibilities has sparked international condemnation and protests across Caracas.
In a rare show of dissent from a senior official, Venezuela’s powerful attorney general Luisa Ortega, long an ally of Maduro, rebuked the court on Friday.
“It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order,” the 59-year-old said in a speech on state television. “It’s my obligation to express my great concern to the country.”
The pro-Maduro Supreme Court said on Wednesday it was taking over the legislature’s role because it was in “contempt” of the law. It has shot down most of the National Assembly’s measures since the opposition won control in 2015.
Maduro’s opponents called on Venezuelans to take to the streets and urged the army to abandon him, branding moves to consolidate his power a “coup d’etat.”
Venezuelan National Assembly president Freddy Guevara said on Twitter that the “coup” was unacceptable to the people and joined calls for protests on Saturday morning.
A few dozen protesters, waving banners saying “no to dictatorship”, had clashed with police across Caracas on Friday.
However, after years of failure on the streets, it is unlikely public protests will develop into the wave of anti-Maduro unrest seen in 2014.
Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and self-declared “son” of late leftist predecessor Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected president in 2013.
But his ratings have plummeted as Venezuelans struggle with a fourth year of recession, scarcities of food and medicines and what is thought to be the world’s highest inflation.
Critics blame a failing socialist system, whereas the government says its enemies are waging an “economic war”. The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.
The Supreme Court’s power grab also brought condemnations and concern from the United States, Organization of American States (OAS), European Union, United Nations and major Latin American nations.
The top United Nations human rights official called on Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Friday to reconsider its decision to take over legislative powers and urged Maduro’s government to uphold rights to peaceful assembly.
“The separation of powers is essential for democracy to function, and keeping democratic spaces open is essential to ensure human rights are protected,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.
On the other hand, ally Russia bucked the trend, urging the world to leave Venezuela alone.
Maduro accuses Washington of leading a push to topple him as part of a wider offensive against leftists in Latin America.
OAS head Luis Almagro, whom the Venezuelan government views as a pawn of Washington, has been pushing for its suspension from the 34-nation regional bloc, which has announced an extraordinary meeting for Monday to debate Venezuela.