CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez moved on Tuesday to bypass parliament and rule by decree for a year in South America's biggest oil producer, prompting opposition accusations of behaving like a dictator.
The socialist leader has used such powers three times before during his 11 years in power, and says he needs them again to deal with a national emergency caused by floods that have killed about 40 people and left almost 140,000 homeless.
The head of parliament said the "Enabling Law" that would let Chavez govern by decree would be approved by Thursday. The text of the law allows him to issue decrees across a wide range of areas including housing, land, finances and security.
Private banks and property owners are bracing themselves for another wave of nationalizations by the former paratrooper, who has taken Venezuela down a steadily more radical route in an effort to entrench "21st century socialism."
"He is winning time with the tragedy to put limits on the new National Assembly," opposition politician Pastora Medina told Reuters. "He is consolidating himself as a dictator."
A freshly united opposition coalition won about half the popular vote at a parliamentary election in September to take 40 percent of seats in a new Assembly that will convene on January 5, when they had hoped to put a check on Chavez's power.
"It is a brutal attack, without anesthetics, against democratic life," said Teodoro Petkoff, editor of leading opposition newspaper Tal Cual. His paper denounced the decree move, along with a package of laws being rushed through, as a "totalitarian ambush ... a Christmas ambush" for Venezuelans.
Seeking to outflank his rivals -- and with an eye on the next presidential vote in 2012 -- Chavez asked the outgoing parliament on Tuesday to grant him fast-track decree powers for 12 months. It is dominated by members of his ruling Socialist Party and is sure to approve the request. Chavez had said on Monday the powers could extend for up to 18 months.
Wall Street took the development in stride.
"This news is not completely surprising and the market is reflecting that," Bret Rosen at Standard Chartered told Reuters, saying the balance-of-power implications were more worrisome than the anticipated fast-track fiscal measures.
Venezuela's benchmark global 9.25 percent 2027 paper, one of the world's most-traded emerging market bonds, rose 0.562 points to bid 74.500 on Tuesday.
CHAVEZ TO HIKE SALES TAX
Chavez's latest power play raises concern about whether he would accept defeat if the 2012 election does not go his way. Polls show his traditionally high ratings have slipped, with the nation divided down the middle in the September elections.
Outside parliament, several dozen opposition demonstrators protested against the measure, while supporters of the president rode past on motorbikes shouting "Long live Chavez!"
The president has said one of his first moves will be to hike Venezuela's sales tax to raise funds for reconstruction.
He has used decree powers in the past to pass about 100 laws, including measures to nationalize part of the oil sector and increase the number of Supreme Court judges.
Chavez is legally entitled to ask parliament for decree powers. But opponents say his real motive is to marginalize their gains in the parliamentary elections and stop them from trying to block his agenda after they take their seats.
Chavez mocked his foes as "crazy" and "in need of Valium" for suggesting he was trampling on the country's constitution.
"All the decree laws will benefit the nation," Chavez, who casts himself as a savior of the poor, said during a walkabout among flood victims with Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.
The populist president, who has inherited Fidel Castro's mantle as Latin America's leading U.S. critic, still has a strong power base in city slums and impoverished rural areas.
Despite foes' view of him as an autocrat ushering in Cuban-style communism, supporters say he is redressing years of imbalance and has encouraged democracy by giving power and funds to grass-roots groups that decide on some public works.
Chavez made the decree move right before Christmas, when Venezuelans disappear en masse to the beach and on holidays and it would be hard for the opposition to mobilize big protests.
But Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst at IHS Global Insight think tank, said a major political showdown was brewing. "This will no doubt generate an institutional crisis," he said.