Venezuela's new opposition congress on Wednesday swore in three lawmakers barred by the Supreme Court from taking their seats, setting up a direct confrontation with the ruling socialists in this economically struggling country.
The court had stopped the lawmakers from Amazonas state from taking their seats to give officials time to look into allegations of electoral fraud. The move enraged the opposition, which called it an attempt by judges loyal to President Nicolas Maduro to undermine the opposition's landslide victory in legislative elections.
The lawmakers were not seated Tuesday when the opposition took control of the congress for the first time in 17 years. But congressional leaders swore them in Wednesday as the body's first act of official business.
United Socialist Party lawmakers stormed out, saying that the opposition had violated the constitution and that all of its legislative acts would now be considered null.
"This assembly has totally lost its legitimacy,'' said the legislature's previous president, Diosdado Cabello. "There's no clash of powers here. It's as simple as this: The National Assembly has violated the constitution.''
The Supreme Court has never ruled against the Socialist Party, and opposition leaders charge that it has become an extension of the executive branch.
The opposition coalition captured 112 of 167 congressional seats in December 6 elections, giving it a crucial two-thirds majority by one seat. That supermajority would allow government critics to censure top officials and even rewrite the constitution. It also makes the three seats held by the Amazonas lawmakers potentially vital.
On his Twitter account, opposition leader Henrique Capriles said voters had elected lawmakers from every state and "nothing is above the decision of the people.''
Chavez portraits removed
Besides swearing in the suspended lawmakers, opposition leaders in congress also angered Maduro's supporters by ordering that portraits of the late President Hugo Chavez be removed from the National Assembly building.
A video of the new head of congress, Henry Ramos — giving the order that all Chavez portraits be taken away — played in heavy rotation on state media Wednesday.
Those moves came as Maduro was expected to make economic announcements and reshuffle his Cabinet after declaring Venezuela faces a new political reality now that the opposition has taken control of congress.
Maduro has juggled his Cabinet several times since taking office in 2013 as the economy has deteriorated. Now, with the new congressional leadership promising to remove him from office within six months, Maduro says a new slate of ministers is needed for a new political era.
Venezuela is grappling with triple-digit inflation and the world's worst recession, in addition to chronic shortages that compel people to spend their days waiting in food lines.
All eyes will be on the military's future participation in the Cabinet amid speculation that the armed forces, where lower-ranking officers are also suffering from the economic problems, may try to soften its strident support for the government and curry favor with the strengthening opposition.
Officers have taken a more active role in civil institutions during the socialist revolution initiated by Chavez. Current and retired military officers control about a third of Venezuela's top ministries.
Shortly after the December 6 elections, Maduro ordered all members of the armed forces back to the barracks in what was widely seen as an assertion of control over the military.