Venezuela’s pro-government constitutional assembly on Wednesday effectively stripped three of the country’s most influential opposition parties of the right to participate in next year’s presidential election.
The all-powerful assembly passed a decree requiring the parties to reapply for legal status after boycotting mayoral elections in early December.
The ban follows up on a threat by socialist President Nicolas Maduro to punish three of the biggest opposition groups and drew swift condemnation within Venezuela and abroad.
Opposition leader Tomas Guanipa said the decree violates the constitution and is designed to block the parties from next year’s presidential race, when Maduro is expected to run for a second term.
“These are the desperate acts of a government that uses fraud to remain in power,” Guanipa said on Twitter.
Opposition leaders decided to boycott the mayoral elections as a protest of gubernatorial races held two months earlier that they claim were fraudulent. The government-stacked National Electoral Council relocated dozens of voting centers in predominantly opposition strongholds days before those votes. In one state, opposition members presented evidence that electronic ballot tabulations did not match up with printed copies held by observers.
Ruling socialist party candidates won 18 of 23 governorships in a surprise victory for a government that has struggled to combat rising crime, malnutrition and medicine shortages.
With little to no opposition participation in the mayoral elections, pro-government candidates won 305 of the 335 races.
“A party that has not participated today cannot participate anymore,” Maduro said after casting his ballot in the December election. “They will disappear from the political map.”
The latest decree was carried out by the constitutional assembly, which was elected in late July in another vote boycotted by the opposition. The assembly is led by some of Maduro’s closest allies and is filled with socialist delegates who have moved quickly to turn the president’s requests into laws.
Venezuela’s opposition parties and many foreign governments consider the assembly illegitimate.
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas strongly rebuked the assembly’s latest decree.
“The Venezuelan government and its illegitimate National Constituent Assembly are inventing rules as they go,” the embassy said on Twitter. “This is not democracy. Differing political views make strong democracies.”
Iris Varela, a member of the constitutional assembly, said the opposition parties that did not participate in the municipal elections will have to apply for legal status. The process overseen by the National Electoral Council includes time-intensive requirements such as gathering petition signatures.
Also Wednesday, the assembly dissolved two municipalities controlled by opposition, including one formerly held by Antonio Ledezma, who recently broke house arrest and fled the country.
No date has been date set for next year’s presidential election. Maduro hasn’t officially announced whether he will run, but many expect that he will seek a second term.