Venezuela, a country that has lived under dueling presidents for nearly a year, looks like it is heading for competing legislatures as well.
On Sunday, allies of President Nicolás Maduro hijacked a session of the country’s National Assembly, while security forces locked out the body’s president, Juan Guaidó, and his supporters. Meanwhile, inside the chamber lawmakers allied to Maduro’s government quickly selected a new head of the chamber.
The National Assembly was one of the few checks on Maduro, who enjoys almost dictatorial powers, and has been a particular thorn in his side because it is headed by the 36-year-old Guaidó, who ran for president against Maduro in 2018 and lost. However, that election was widely seen as fraudulent and last January, Guaidó, with the backing of the U.S. and nearly 60 other countries, declared himself Venezuela’s head of state.
But Maduro, who took over when longtime socialist leader Hugo Chávez died in 2013, has refused to step down, adding political instability to the already economically unstable country, which has experienced hyper-inflation, chronic shortages and widespread corruption.
On Sunday, scuffles broke out inside and outside the National Assembly as Luis Parra — who has denied allegations of accepting bribes from Maduro to side with the socialists in the legislature — was sworn-in to replace Guaidó as the chamber’s president.
Later, opposition lawmakers, barred from the legislature, met at a newspaper office and defiantly voted to re-elect Guaidó.
The U.S. has condemned the move by Maduro’s allies to seize the legislature and on Monday Vice President Mike Pence called Guaidó, whom the administration recognizes as the country’s legitimate leader, to pledge its support for him.
A showdown was in the offing on Tuesday, with the opposition, led by Guaidó, vowing to retake the assembly.
Speaking to reporters in the capital Caracas on Monday, Guaidó said he and lawmakers belonging to his Democratic Unity Roundtable alliance, which forms a majority in the 167-seat assembly, are willing to risk a confrontation because “Venezuela deserves it” and said Maduro’s “dictatorship” must decide “if it will continue its farce, which no one recognizes.”
On Monday, Parra appeared to regard his election to lead the National Assembly as a fait accompli, posting videos of himself assuming his new duties and changing his Twitter profile to read, “President of the National Assembly of Venezuela.”
Parra said Monday that Guaidó “will be permitted” back in the legislature, but “as any other lawmaker,” he would first need to acknowledge Parra’s undisputed leadership of the body.
Parra, an independent who claims to remain a Maduro critic, says Venezuela needs to end its “politics of polarization” and work toward free and fair parliamentary elections to be held later this year.
“We are working on achieving a political change in Venezuela,” Parra said from the Assembly building, according to The Associated Press. “Our efforts are focused on holding clean, free elections immediately.”