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Socialist bloc back in Venezuela congress after boycott

By FABIOLA SANCHEZ and CHRISTINE ARMARIOSeptember 24, 2019
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Lawmakers Tania Diaz of the Venezuelan Socialist United Party speaks during a National Assembly session in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Lawmakers with the ruling socialist party returning to the National Assembly Tuesday after years of absence as part of a widely criticized pact between President Nicolas Maduro and a handful of outlier opposition parties. Opposition leader Juan Guaido is the legislature's president and has lambasted the accord. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
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Lawmakers Tania Diaz of the Venezuelan Socialist United Party speaks during a National Assembly session in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Lawmakers with the ruling socialist party returning to the National Assembly Tuesday after years of absence as part of a widely criticized pact between President Nicolas Maduro and a handful of outlier opposition parties. Opposition leader Juan Guaido is the legislature's president and has lambasted the accord. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Socialist party lawmakers ended their two-year boycott of Venezuela’s legislature Tuesday, seeking to renew their influence in the last branch of federal government still controlled by the opposition amidst a lengthy power struggle.

Thirty-eight ruling party legislators heeded President Nicolás Maduro’s call to return to the National Assembly building, which has become the opposition’s main platform in their push to oust the embattled leader from power.

They returned as part of an accord between Maduro and a handful of outlier opposition parties roundly chastised as a crude attempt to divide the anti-government movement led by legislative president Juan Guaidó.

Maduro is pushing forward the agreement as an alternative to Norway-sponsored talks with the mainstream opposition that have fallen apart in recent weeks as he looks to stabilize a country fraught by economic and political calamity.

The session Tuesday put the dueling sides face to face, with both accusing one another of violating the constitution and fueling the crisis. Guaidó, recognized by the U.S. and over 50 other nations as Venezuela’s rightful president, sat perched at the helm, questioning the socialists for their continuing backing of the Maduro government.

“If they want to reach solutions, let’s talk about solutions,” Guaidó told the raucous assembly. “Free elections, separation of powers.”

The socialist lawmakers have been absent since 2017, backing several pro-government Supreme Court rulings declaring the legislature in contempt. Several have gone on to hold positions as minsters and governors, a constitutional violation.

Socialist lawmaker Francisco Torrealba said the ruling party members hoped to “reestablish” the legislature’s functions, though he offered few details, other than to say that congress shouldn’t be used to delegitimize other branches from power.

“We are here to rescue a space of dialogue,” he said.

On several occasions, Torrealba attempted to interrupt proceedings, but the Guaidó-led opposition bloc refused to acknowledge him as an active legislator since he holds another official government role.

The National Assembly spat is likely a preview of what could come next year.

Though they hold only 54 of 167 seats in congress, analysts suspect that resuming their posts is the first of several steps paving the way toward new legislative elections Maduro has vowed to hold in early 2020 that the opposition would likely boycott.

Phil Gunson, a senior analyst with the Crisis Group in Caracas, said that Venezuela’s socialist party may be willing to wager that they can win back the National Assembly if they hold an election that the opposition refuses to participate in.

Doing so would further remove a persistent thorn in Maduro’s quest to remain president.

“The government has no apparent intention of putting its continuation in power at risk,” he said.

The development poses a new challenge for Guaidó, who the opposition has vowed to continue recognizing as Venezuela’s legitimate president even after his term as the leader of congress expires early next year. Guaidó contends that under the constitution, he is the rightful leader because last year’s presidential election was fraudulent.

Gunson said that argument could be harder to continue upholding if the government proceeds with a new election that the opposition decides to boycott in protest, potentially losing its majority.

“If the National Assembly is back in government hands,” he said, “all that becomes an even more evident fiction.”

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Armario reported from Bogotá, Colombia.

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