Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro is, judging by most signs, a weak president. He faces growing discontent. Venezuelans stand in line for hours just to buy basic staples, and the government says they are happy to do so. Inflation is running at 50 percent and growing. Crime is rampant. Maduro, moreover, was elected by a razor-thin margin, and his main opponent has never conceded defeat.
Faced with this deepening crisis, what does Venezuela's legislature decide to do? Why, give him powers to rule by decree, of course. What to others may sound counter-intuitive... is just another day in Venezuelan politics.
The Venezuelan Constitution allows the president to rule by decree so long as three-fifths of the single-chamber National Assembly agrees to it -- in other words, 99 deputies out of a total of 165. Following the 2010 parliamentary election, the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) had 98 deputies. Maduro was short by one vote, but more critically, he was short on political capital. It took a healthy dose of chutzpah to ask for sweeping legislative powers.
Maduro was not to be deterred by simple electoral math. A few months ago, he and his allies began shopping around for a new vote. The president's courts -- which have never made any pretense of independence from the executive branch -- impeached two deputies. One of the parliament's alternate deputies -- who, by law, take the place of the impeached ones -- flipped over to the Revolution.
Maduro says he is going to use the Enabling Law to attack "corruption." He doesn't need a special law to do that. Venezuela has several anti-corruption laws in the book, the prosecutor's office and the courts all do the president's bidding, and he gets away with seemingly illegal acts anyway. Some critics say he will use the law to persecute the opposition, but he is already doing a fine job of that.
Maduro, in other words, already has total impunity. What, then, can we make of this move?
One read could be that, by asking for special powers, he is sending a message to Venezuelans, saying that whatever has already happened in the economy is not his fault. Asking for special powers suggests that he really doesn't have the economy under control, that he needs to "regulate" it some more because "greedy capitalists" are still running amok.
This, of course, is bunk, but a certain part of Maduro's base may believe it. This could help Maduro in upcoming mayoral elections.
Maduro is also sending a message of internal strength to the various factions inside his coalition. The Enabling Law was obtained thanks to the efforts of the president of the National Assembly and (some suggest) his main rival within chavismo, Diosdado Cabello. It seems to say to dissenting voices within chavismo: Maduro is boss, and everyone must toe the line.
As for the economy itself, it's clear the president's plan is to increase the government's role. Maduro has already forced businesses to lower their prices at gunpoint. He already regulates many prices in the economy, and the current laws allow him to set many more. He has already said he will publish a decree whereby the profit margins for all sectors in the economy will be set by fiat. This would spell disaster for the Venezuelan economy.
It's easy to be fooled into thinking this law is going to be used for actual legislation, but that would be the wrong analysis. Everything chavismo does is a function of its desire to maintain and increase its hold on power. Most of the time, there are no actual public policy goals involved.
Hugo Chávez used Enabling Laws to precipitate crises. He viewed a crisis as a useful tool to forward his agenda, identify his enemies, and dominate the news cycle.
By emulating his fallen idol, Maduro is looking to do the same. The last thing on his mind is actual legislating.
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