Battle lines drawn in Venezuela political crisis

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Caracas (AFP)

Venezuela's political crisis deepened Thursday as the government vowed to stop the center-right opposition using its new legislative powers to try and oust President Nicolas Maduro.

The opposition laid claim to a big majority in the National Assembly state legislature which could empower it to force out Maduro. He rejected the assembly as illegal and formed a new hardline leftist cabinet to fight it.

Analysts have warned of the risk of unrest in the streets in the South American oil-producing country, stricken by recession and shortages.

Political uncertainty reigned Thursday as Maduro's side vowed to sue the opposition for contempt of court for swearing in a two-thirds supermajority in the assembly, in defiance of a government legal challenge.

"We are going to bring a case against the flagrant violation of the constitution," said pro-government deputy Ricardo Molina at a street rally of Maduro supporters.

The new speaker of the congress, Henry Ramos Allup, rejected the charge. He has vowed the assembly will push ahead with legislation even though the Supreme Court has ordered three opposition lawmakers to be suspended over alleged electoral fraud.

"We are not in contempt of court," he said. "The ones who are in contempt are the ones who have disregarded the public will after the elections."

The opposition MUD coalition won a majority in the assembly for the first time in nearly 17 years at elections on December 6.

The MUD has vowed to find a way within six months to get rid of Maduro by constitutional means. But Maduro's side has vowed to block it by suing, withholding funding and refusing to publish its legislation.

"They give us six months to survive. You need balls to carry out a coup d'etat. We'll see if they have any," said Diosdado Cabello, the number two in Maduro's leadership.

"Get ready for a long struggle."

- Bleak economic outlook -

As the battles lines formed, Maduro promptly reshuffled his cabinet, filling key posts with defenders of the socialist "revolution" launched by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Facing a "new stage of the Revolution" and a "bourgeois legislature," Maduro said his new cabinet team would work on the "grave economic situation" and retool his party's policies.

He appointed hardline socialists to the key posts of economy, finance and foreign trade and investment, while keeping in place his oil minister.

He named economist Luis Salas to the top economic ministerial post.

Analysts warn the political deadlock will compound the hardship of Venezuelans who are suffering shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation.

Plunging oil prices have sharply curbed the country's revenues.

"The president's support for the radical ideological wing of Chavismo, sidelining pragmatists, does not generate positive expectations for change," said analyst Luis Vicente Leon, head of polling firm Datanalisis.

"Expectations of institutional conflict increase the negative outlook for the nation's economy."

Allup said that within six months his side would propose a way "to change the government by constitutional means."

Maduro responded: "I will be there to defend democracy with an iron hand. They will not make me give ground or waver."

Under Venezuelan law, with a two-thirds majority, the opposition could launch measures as early as April to try to force Maduro from office before his term ends in 2019.

But it was not clear whether they will succeed while at odds with the Supreme Court, which is seen as allied with the government.

One of the first measures the opposition wants to pass is an amnesty for 75 political prisoners. Maduro has vowed to veto that move.

The US State Department backed the call for political prisoners to be released.

Maduro's government accused Washington of "interference."