Venezuela's parliament gave President Hugo Chavez the power to rule by decree for 18 months on Friday, outraging opponents who accuse him of turning South America's biggest oil producer into a dictatorship.
The move consolidated the firebrand socialist leader's hold on power after nearly 12 years in office, and raised the prospect of a fresh wave of nationalizations as the former paratrooper seeks to entrench his self-styled "revolution."
As he signed the legislation, Chavez mocked opposition politicians. "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."
Chavez had asked for the fast-track powers for one year, saying he needed them to deal with a national emergency caused by floods that drove nearly 140,000 people from their homes.
But the National Assembly, dominated by loyalists from his Socialist Party, decided to extend them for 18 months.
That means the president can rule by decree until mid-2012, and can keep opposition parties out of the legislative process until his re-election campaign is well under way for Venezuela's next presidential vote in December of that year.
The president of parliament, Cilia Flores, said lawmakers must heed the appeals of families afflicted by the floods.
"It is raised to 18 months at the proposal of those immediately affected, the same people who are there relying on Comandante Chavez," she told the Assembly earlier.
"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 vote was part of a legislative onslaught to push through bills before a new Assembly is seated on January 5. Earlier on Friday, parliament passed a law making it easier for the government to nationalize banks and trim their profits.
FOCUS ON 2012
Chavez said the next Assembly would become a great ideological and moral battlefield, and denounced the incoming opposition lawmakers as U.S. stooges.
"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," he said.
The "Enabling Law," which means Chavez can issue decrees across a wide range of areas including housing, land, finances and security, has been denounced as autocratic by his political rivals and by the U.S. State Department.
An opposition coalition won about half the popular vote at a parliamentary election in September to take 40 percent of the seats in the next Assembly — where they had hoped to put a check on the president's powers.
Chavez's latest move raised concern about whether he would accept defeat if the 2012 election does not go his way. Polls show his traditionally high ratings have slipped, and the nation was split in the September elections.
The president, who has used decree powers three times in the past, has said one of his first moves will be to increase the sales tax to raise funds for reconstruction after the floods. Previously, he used the fast-track powers to pass about 100 laws, including measures to nationalize part of the oil sector and increase the number of Supreme Court judges.
The banking law passed earlier on Friday creates stringent operating rules that include forcing banks to give 5 percent of their profits every six months to community groups.
Chavez, who has inherited Fidel Castro's mantle as Latin America's leading U.S. critic, still has a strong power base in city slums and impoverished rural areas.
Although his foes see 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 grass-roots groups that decide on some public works.