|Chavez has been granted powers of decree by parliament so he can enact laws to help flood victims in Venezuela [AFP]
Venezuela's parliament has granted Hugo Chavez, the president, the power to rule by decree for the next 18 months in response to a flooding crisis, which has driven nearly 140,000 people from their homes.
The move means that despite opposition gains in September's elections, the president can keep bypass the normal legislative process until his re-election campaign is under way in 2012.
Chavez had asked for the fast-track powers for one year, but the parliament, which is dominated by members of his Socialist Party, decided to extend them to 18 months.
"It is raised to 18 months at the proposal of those immediately affected, the same people who are there relying on Comandante Chavez," Cilia Flores, the president of the parliament, said.
"So that they can have their streets, their highways, public services, electricity, everything to live in dignity, we are going to hear these proposals and concerns."
The "Enabling Law" means the president can issue decrees across a wide range of areas including housing, land, finances and security.
The prospect of Chavez ruling by decree has outraged opposition parties, who say that it will turn the country into a dictatorship.
A freshly united opposition coalition won about half the popular vote at a parliamentary election in September to take 40 per cent of the seats in the next Assembly, which is due to be seated on January 5.
"We will win ... let's see how they [the opposition] are going to make laws now"
Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president
As he signed the legislation on Friday, Chavez mocked the incoming opposition MPs.
"They will not be able to create even one law, little Yankees," he said. "We will win ... let's see how they are going to make laws now.
"Those who will come on January 5 are not opponents. They are little Yankees ... defenders of the bourgeoisie, defenders of the empire and of its politics of aggression."
With Chavez able to make laws without opposition approval, opposition plans to put a check on the president's powers now lie in tatters.
The move comes as polls show support for the former paratrooper slipping, and critics have expressed fears that he could use the new powers to marginalise opposition parties ahead of the election.
Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera's Latin America editor, said that the timing of the decision was telling.
"The justification for being able to rule by decree is that it will allow the president to quickly pass new laws to deal with the emergency that the country is facing because of weeks of floods," she said. "But clearly the timing here is very suspect. In three weeks he will no longer have a two-thirds majority, and now he will be able to pass by decree laws dealing with just about everything."
Chavez has used decree powers three times in the past, passing about 100 laws without parliamentary approval, including measures to nationalise part of the oil sector and to increase the number of supreme court judges.
Chavez is a divisive figure in Venezuela, where recent elections showed the country almost evenly split. He has inherited Fidel Castro's mantle as Latin America's leading U.S. critic, and still has a strong power base in city slums and impoverished rural areas.
Although his foes' view him as an autocrat ushering in Cuban-style communism, supporters say he is redressing years of imbalance and has encouraged democracy by giving power and funds to grassroots groups that decide on some public works.