Venezuela's opposition bypasses Supreme Court and swears in 3 lawmakers

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Venezuela's congress swore in three opposition lawmakers Thursday in violation of a Supreme Court ruling that could further inflame the country's political divisions.

Electoral authorities had certified the victory of the indigenous lawmakers the night of the opposition's landslide victory in December elections. But they were denied their seats after government allies took allegations of electoral fraud in the Amazon region to the high court, which ruled that any legislation passed with the three lawmakers voting would be nullified while it studied the complaint. The decision effectively denied the opposition of the two-thirds supermajority with which it hoped to dramatically challenge President Nicolas Maduro's socialist rule.

With no verdict in sight, the three lawmakers were reinstated over the objections of pro-government lawmakers, who shouted "fraud" and turned their backs in protest. Opposition lawmakers applauded and sang the national anthem.

"We're not going to obey any decision of the Supreme Court that violates the constitution," National Assembly President Henry Ramos told lawmakers, upping the ante in a half-year-old fight for power with Maduro's administration.

The opposition has been stymied at almost every turn by Maduro and the government-stacked judiciary since it won control of the legislature in December for the first time in 17 years of socialist rule. Almost every piece of legislation it has passed has been gutted or thrown out by the Supreme Court, and government officials have ignored attempts to order them to give testimony to congress. During an energy crisis earlier this year, Maduro even threatened to cut off all electricity to the neo-classical legislative building.

The impasse has in some ways energized the opposition, which has been collecting signatures seeking to force a recall referendum this year on cutting short Maduro's term and triggering new elections. But it's an uphill struggle, with authorities dragging their feet in what the opposition says is an attempt to delay a vote until 2017, after which Maduro would simply be replaced by his vice president.

On Wednesday, hundreds of opposition supporters marched through the rain to the downtown headquarters of the National Electoral Council to demand it set a date for the next step in the complicated process, in which Maduro's foes would have to collect nearly 4 million signatures in a few days. The move came after the elections board missed its own Tuesday deadline to certify signatures and the ruling socialist party demanded the main opposition alliance be disqualified as a political force.

"The United States continues to be concerned by unnecessary delays of the recall referendum process in Venezuela," State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday in Washington. "We urge the Venezuelan government to respect its own constitutional mechanisms and promptly allow this process to go forward without delay, in accordance with the will of the Venezuelan people."

A supermajority in congress would give the opposition sweeping powers to curtail Maduro's rule, including the right to remove Supreme Court justices and even convoke a special assembly to rewrite the 1999 constitution put in by the late President Hugo Chavez.

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