Venezuela opposition renews assault against president

Venezuelan opposition lawmakers sought to trigger early elections by passing a key censure motion Monday against President Nicolas Maduro, who is ruling over a national economic crisis and consequent food shortages.

The opposition majority in the National Assembly legislature declared that Maduro effectively "abandoned his post" by failing to stem the "economic devastation" in the oil-rich country, according to the speaker of the legislature, Julio Borges.

However the Supreme Court, which has consistently sided with Maduro, was expected to overrule the motion. It has stated that "the National Assembly is not qualified to remove the president."

The opposition blames Maduro for an "unprecedented economic crisis" that has sparked deadly riots and looting amid shortages of food and medicine.

Maduro has blamed the crisis on a US-backed conspiracy against his socialist policies inherited from his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

The opposition wants to hold early elections, saying the situation is too serious to wait until Maduro ends his term in 2019.

"An electoral off-ramp is needed for Venezuela's crisis, so that the people can express themselves through a vote," said Borges.

The lawmakers' declaration accuses Maduro of trampling citizens' rights and "breaking with the constitutional order."

- More protests? -

Under Venezuela's constitution, the National Assembly can force the president's replacement by declaring he has "abandoned his post." Elections are then meant to be held within 30 days.

But Maduro has easily swatted down the opposition's other maneuvers against him so far.

His grip on the courts, electoral council and military has allowed him to stymie a series of opposition strategies: a recall referendum, a legislative onslaught and street protests.

The Supreme Court five months ago declared null all acts passed by the opposition-dominated parliament. It maintains that Maduro is exercising his constitutional prerogatives.

Political analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos of London-based research group IHS said the opposition's motion will not succeed as long as the Supreme Court remains loyal to Maduro.

"And we will have to wait and see whether it will be accompanied by a strategy of pressure from the street to escalate the protest," he said.

Other analysts said the opposition -- itself divided -- would do better to focus on local and state elections due this year.

Venezuelans, meanwhile, must queue hours to buy rationed food and supplies at shops. Soaring inflation has driven up the prices of what goods are available.

Maduro has launched a series of measures to tackle the crisis, with limited success.

Last month he announced that new, higher-denomination banknotes would be printed to spare Venezuelans handling unwieldy wads of bills.

That sparked chaos as Maduro tried to withdraw the prevalent 100-bolivar bill from circulation before replacements had arrived.

He said in televised comments on Monday that he now aimed to launch the new series of banknotes on January 16.

- Church blames government -

The two sides have held Vatican-mediated talks from October to try to ease the crisis. But the talks broke up last month, with the opposition accusing the government of bad faith.

Catholic church leaders on Monday blamed the failure of the dialogue on the government.

"The government is principally responsible for the failure of the talks," Diego Padron, head of the Venezuelan Episcopal Council, told reporters.

"There was not the will to reach an accord."

The council's secretary general Victor Hugo Basabe added: "Regrettably we have a government that is not able to fulfill its commitments... and a fractured opposition that does not know how to put the Venezuelan people's interests before its own."