CARACAS – With less than two weeks to go before the new opposition-led National Assembly is installed, Venezuela´s ruling party stepped on the gas pedal this week and appointed 13 new Supreme Court justices.
On the Dec. 6 congressional election, opposition candidates won 112 of the assembly's 167 seats, giving them power to challenge the socialist administration of President Nicolas Maduro.
With the new justices, Chavistas have secured their stranglehold over a body that will be key in the upcoming years if and when the government wants to block the opposition’s initiatives.
Tulio Alvarez, an expert in constitutional law, predicted that political conflict is now all but guaranteed.
“There will be a constitutional crisis because the legislative and executive powers will collide and the judicial branch will try to back the government,” he said. “But in the Dec. 6 elections it became clear that the will of the people is to see a change in the country and Chavistas are not respecting that,” Alvarez added.
He said the only arbitrator now left is Venezuela’s National Army. “We don’t know how they will react,” he warned.
The Supreme Court is made up of 32 justices, 23 of which have been replaced over the last year with mostly prominent Chavistas.
Among the justices appointed Wednesday there are renowned leaders from the ruling party PSUV and close allies of President Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the assembly’s current president and Chavismo’s number two.
The Supreme Court is the only body with the faculty to rule a law unconstitutional, something the opposition now fears will be used to block a planned amnesty law to release all political prisoners, including leaders like Leopoldo Lopez.
And even when there are mechanisms by which the National Assembly could overturn the 13 designations, those same judges have the ability to block it.
“The opposition’s supermajority could vote against these appointments because they were illegal,” Alvarez told Fox News Latino, “but the Supreme Court could challenge that order and leave things as they are.”
Soon after the appointments were made on Wednesday, current Assembly members of the opposition voiced their frustration and argued that the process was illegally hushed. Some called it a "legislative coup."
Biaggio Pilieri, an opposition lawmaker who got reelected, said it will be up to the upcoming supermajority to debate and decide how to proceed moving forward. The new Assembly will be installed on Jan. 5.
“We did what we could yesterday and now we have to analyze our options. We will not make any mistake for rushing things,” he said.
The 13 new judges were approved by the government’s party simple majority after failing to win passage by a two-thirds vote in three previous efforts – Venezuelan law dictates that in a fourth round of voting only simple majority is required. In order to fulfill this requirement, the ruling party called for two votes on Tuesday and two more on Wednesday.
“The idea behind the Constitution is that the different parties debate and negotiate until a deal can be reached and vote by the two-thirds. What happened [on Wednesday] goes against the spirit of democracy,” Alvarez said.
Even though one of the requirements to be eligible for the Supreme Court is having no political affiliation to any party, two of the 13 appointees – Calixto Ortega and Christian Zerpa – are known Chavistas who even ran for the ruling party earlier this month.
A third appointee, Fanny Marquez, has close ties to Speaker Cabello.
The Supreme Court’s Electoral Hall, to which Zerpa and Marquez have been appointed, will play a central role if the ruling party decides to challenge the Dec. 6 results in some districts – a possibility strongly rumored.
The Electoral Hall is a five-judge panel that decides if a re-vote is needed in any district, an extremely thorny issue since the opposition needs to lose just one seat to lose two-thirds of the assembly, and therefore the supermajority.
The AP contributed to this report.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.