Venezuela top court blocks four lawmakers-elect from taking office

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked four newly elected lawmakers from taking office after a legal challenge by the ruling Socialist Party, which was roundly defeated by the opposition coalition in the Dec. 6 congressional election.

A man walks in front of a building of the Venezuela Supreme Court in Caracas December 23, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The court’s Electoral Chamber approved injunctions against the election victories of three lawmakers linked to the opposition and one from the Socialist Party, while it hears the legal challenge against them. All were elected in the rural state of Amazonas.

The court also agreed to hear legal challenges to the election of another six opposition deputies, but dismissed requests for similar injunctions in those cases, according to information posted on the court’s website.

It did not describe the arguments underlying the legal challenges. A court official contacted by Reuters said no one was available to comment.

As a result, four lawmakers would be blocked from taking office when the new Congress opens on Jan. 5, while the other five would be allowed to do so while the court hears the legal challenge against them.

The opposition’s Democratic Unity coalition won 112 seats out of 167 for a 67 percent majority, driven by discontent over the country’s prolonged economic crisis and dissatisfaction with the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

A two-thirds majority gives the opposition expanded powers including the capacity to fire Maduro’s cabinet ministers.

It was not immediately evident what effect Wednesday’s court decision would have on the opposition’s majority.

The opposition is accusing the government of seeking to chip away at its majority through legal challenges to the vote results and last-minute designations of Supreme Court justices.

The lame-duck Congress, in which the Socialist Party has a majority, this month named 13 Supreme Court justices in what the opposition called a last-minute court-packing scheme.

The opposition coalition said on Wednesday it would recuse the five justices of the Electoral Chamber. It noted that one of those justices was still listed by the National Assembly’s website as a Socialist Party deputy.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Eyanir Chinea; Editing by Leslie Adler, Toni Reinhold