CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s pro-government supreme court has ousted the leaders of two key opposition parties and put them in the hands of politicians widely accused of being shadow allies of the ruling Socialist Party, months ahead of legislative elections.
The court issued rulings on Monday night and Tuesday putting the Democratic Action and First Justice political parties in the hands of politicians who have been expelled from those parties.
The move is certain to fuel criticism that Maduro is tampering with elections to prevent voters from punishing the Socialist Party for a crushing economic collapse that has forced some 5 million people to emigrate.
And it threatens to leave opposition candidates with no party platform in the parliamentary vote, which is expected to take place this year but has not been formally scheduled.
“First Justice is (made up of) tens of thousands of leaders, militants and sympathizers who continue to fight for the liberation of Venezuela,” opposition lawmaker Juan Pablo Guanipa wrote on Twitter. “It is not a time for resignation! It is time for resistance!”
The court on Monday said that Democratic Action would be led by long-time party activist Bernabe Gutierrez. The party said in a statement on Tuesday that it had expelled Gutierrez for “conspiring with the regime of Nicolas Maduro.”
The court said First Justice would be run by legislator Jose Brito, who was expelled from the party in December following accusations he was involved in an influence peddling scandal in which opposition lawmakers reportedly helped burnish the reputation of a government-linked businessman.
Gutierrez did not respond to a message seeking comment. Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Brito.
Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Critics have long accused Socialist Party leaders of using a combination of threats and bribes to persuade opposition politicians to operate as allies while still claiming to be Maduro’s adversaries.
A group of lawmakers including Brito in January claimed to have beaten allies of opposition leader Juan Guaido in a vote for the parliamentary leadership after troops blocked Guaido from entering the legislative palace.
The group has since then been dismissed as Maduro puppets by the opposition, which recognized Guaido as the legitimate leader of parliament.
Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; editing by Jonathan Oatis
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