CARACAS, Venezuela – Opposition lawmakers gained a bigger presence and a platform to challenge Hugo Chavez as a new National Assembly took office Wednesday, though the congress' powers are limited by a measure letting the president enact laws by decree.
After having almost no representation at all in the outgoing congress due to a decision to boycott 2005 elections, the opposition now controls 67 of the National Assembly's 165 seats. That means Chavez's allies no longer have a two-thirds super majority, the threshold needed to approve some types of major laws and appoint Supreme Court justices.
Lawmakers stood and sang the national anthem at the start of a raucous inaugural session, which saw opening speeches that drew applause and shouts from the two camps. Pro-Chavez lawmakers chanted their slogan "They will not return!" — to which some opposition lawmakers replied that they had, in fact, returned.
Supporters and opponents of Chavez both demonstrated near the National Assembly, while hundreds of National Guard troops and police in riot gear blocked streets.
The president made an outdoor speech to supporters, saying it's positive to have an opposition in the Assembly and that it will undoubtedly mean more confrontation.
"2011 will be a year of great battles. They already announced and began their efforts to try to sabotage the work of the government," Chavez said. "They will never again have a majority."
The outgoing congress, overwhelmingly controlled by Chavez loyalists, approved a law last month granting him special decree powers for the next year and a half — meaning he will be able to bypass congress to enact laws in areas ranging from the financial sector to the country's "socio-economic system."
The lawmakers also appointed nine new Supreme Court justices, reinforcing the dominance of judges widely seen as friendly to the government.
Legislators in the previous congress rewrote parliamentary rules to limit the time allowed for debate and give more power to the assembly president and Chavez's party. Another new law allows the suspension of any lawmaker who leaves a party in the middle of a term — a response to the defections of about a dozen politicians from the pro-Chavez bloc in the last legislature.
Opponents have denounced the decree measure as an anti-democratic power grab and vow to press ahead with their own agenda.
Some top priorities will be to push for a gun control law and measures to promote job-creation amid a troubled economy, said Julio Borges, one of the new opposition leaders in the unicameral legislature.
Borges said the opposition will also aim to impose checks to try to fight corruption, and added that he will call for a prohibition on Chavez giving away the nation's money to allies abroad. Opponents accuse Chavez of squandering the country's oil wealth trying to cement international alliances.
Chavez has urged lawmakers in his socialist party to defeat opponents he calls "pitiyanquis," or "little Yankees," whom he accuses of being in cahoots with the United States.
Fernando Soto Rojos, who was a leftist guerrilla in the 1960s, was confirmed as the new National Assembly president. He pledged in an inaugural speech to encourage participation by the public in the lawmaking process.
The opposition took roughly half the popular vote in September. They argue they would have won many more seats if not for a controversial election law that redrew some districts and gave greater weight to rural areas where Chavez's support is stronger.
"I come here to speak today in the name of the immense majority of the popular vote ... a majority that isn't reflected in this chamber, that isn't reflected due to a law that defrauds the popular will," opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina said in a speech.
Some opposition politicians used their speeches to denounce criminal cases against two elected lawmakers, saying the men are jailed for political reasons. The opposition unsuccessfully nominated one of them for Assembly vice president — Jose Sanchez, who was convicted as an accomplice in the killing of a military intelligence official.
Chavez told supporters it was shameful the opposition tried to name "a murderer" to such a post. "Imagine if they would have had a majority, they would have proposed murderers, thieves," to lead the body, he said.
In spite of blocked streets outside the Assembly, a small group of Chavez supporters was allowed through and watched on a television set on a corner adjacent to the congress. Some shouted when opposition politicians spoke, calling them "rats" and "coup-plotters."
A few blocks away, hundreds of government opponents demonstrated in support of their lawmakers.
"I hope they fight for all of us Venezuelans who voted for democracy," said Maria Eugenia Escalona, a 53-year-old housewife.
Thousands of Chavez supporters held a separate rally in a downtown plaza.
"We still have the majority, and we won't be intimidated by a right-wing minority," said Edgar Ramos, a 60-year-old cartoonist who held a caricature he had drawn of one opposition lawmaker.
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.