CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro’s call to hold a “mega-election” that could obliterate the opposition-dominated legislature was met Thursday with a storm of protest from politicians facing an ever-bleaker future.
In a news conference Wednesday, Maduro proposed moving up legislative elections originally scheduled for 2020. They would be held alongside a snap presidential election scheduled for April 22.
The socialist president made the move after the opposition refused to participate in the presidential election because of what it called fraudulent conditions.
“The government believes with this announcement and its thirst for power that it can change the reality in the country,” Stalin González, an opposition legislator, said in a tweet. “The National Assembly has done its job holding [the government] accountable and that’s why they want to get rid of it.”
Maduro has become increasingly authoritarian as Venezuela has spiraled into chaos, with inflation expected to hit 13,000 percent this year and thousands of people leaving the country because of food shortages, high crime and other woes.
The national legislature had already been largely sidelined since Maduro called elections last year that established a Constituent Assembly with sweeping powers. That body is dominated by his followers.
The opposition has spent months in internationally mediated talks with the government seeking a way out of the country’s political and economic crisis, but the dialogue, held in the Dominican Republic, has yielded no agreement.
Maduro explained his call for early legislative elections by saying the country needed a “truly legitimate National Assembly in the service of the people.” He added that the “mega-election” would also involve choosing state legislators and mayors. The proposal is poised for approval by the Constituent Assembly.
“They want to oblige us to participate, but that’s not going to happen,” opposition lawmaker Luis Florido said in a telephone interview. “What they’re doing is simply illegal and a means to profit from our absence” from the election.
The United States and several Latin American countries have assailed Maduro for scheduling a presidential election that is unlikely to include a single major opposition candidate. One opposition leader, Leopoldo López, is under house arrest, and another, Henrique Capriles, was barred by electoral authorities from running for 15 years.
Opposition legislator Julio Borges tweeted: “Nicolás Maduro, with this farce of a ‘mega election’ you’re committing suicide. Your days are numbered.”
Moisés Naím, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served as a Venezuelan cabinet minister in the early 1990s, said Maduro was taking after leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in staging virtually meaningless elections.
“Replacing the only institution left with real legitimacy, which none of his institutions has, is his latest great charade,” Naím said in a telephone interview.
Venezuela’s opposition has proved ineffectual in challenging Maduro, despite the country’s disastrous economic condition. Last year, Venezuelans held months of anti-government protests, but the demonstrations died down as the Constituent Assembly was formed.
Maduro’s popularity has stabilized at around 30 percent, said Félix Seijas, director of the Delphos polling agency. With the opposition nearly absent, Seijas said, the president has considerable room to maneuver.
Authorities “were waiting for the opposition to say it wouldn’t participate to have the road clear,” he said in a phone interview. “They’ve decided to take absolute domestic control and finish pulverizing opponents.”
Analysts say Maduro is trying to close ranks internally and to create a more independent image in this year’s presidential campaign.
He had largely been seen as the protege of Hugo Chávez, the fiery populist leader who died in 2013. Maduro hopes to offer a fresh start after four years in the presidency that have been marked by economic crisis and a crumbling health system.
Maduro last month launched a new pro-Chávez party, separate from the ruling socialist party, that he named “We Are Venezuela.” It is backed by his allies, while some potential rivals, like Diosdado Cabello, a member of the Constituent Assembly, have remained in the socialist party.
The president’s other prominent rival in the Chavista movement, Rafael Ramírez, is in hiding abroad. Venezuelan authorities have accused Ramírez, the former head of the national oil company, of corruption.
In a recent phone interview, Ramírez said that if he were active in Venezuelan politics now, he would insist that the president compete in a primary.
“Who said this is a monarchy?” he asked.