November 24, 2015 / 5:18 PM / in 2 years

Venezuelan opposition wants prisoners free, economy revamped after vote

Jesus Torrealba, secretary of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), gestures during an interview with Reuters in Caracas November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Marco Bello

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition will prioritize laws to free jailed activists and reform the crisis-hit economy if it wins Dec. 6 elections to take control of the legislature away from the ruling socialists for the first time in 16 years.

But there would be no “witch hunt” against foes or any rush toward a recall referendum to try to oust President Nicolas Maduro, Democratic Unity coalition head Jesus Torrealba told Reuters.

“If we take control of the National Assembly simply to say ‘We are going to recall so-and-so,’ then it would be perceived by the country as a tit-for-tat measure and that could split the electorate who are behind us in their majority now,” Torrealba said at his spartan headquarters, shared with an opposition newspaper.

After losing multiple elections since 1998 to Venezuela’s socialist “Chavismo” movement, named for founder and former President Hugo Chavez, polls show the opposition with its best chance to win the legislature.

Victory could enable it to chip away at Maduro’s power by holding ministers to account, approving or rejecting budgets, and influencing appointments to judicial and electoral authorities

The economic crisis has battered Maduro’s approval ratings, although he retains a hard core of support from Venezuelans still devoted to the memory of Chavez and scared the opposition will dismantle state welfare projects.

Electoral district geography and superior campaign resources also favor the government, meaning the outcome may be tighter than confident opposition strategists think.

Torrealba said the opposition’s priority in the 167-seat legislature would be an Amnesty and Reconciliation Law to end the jailing and alleged persecution of opposition leaders and other indigenous, union or environmental activists who have fallen out with the government.

“We have to unite the country. It has been torn apart, bitterly divided for 16 years by demagogic and cruel discourse,” said the 57-year-old former community TV show host, activist and teacher who was a Communist Party member in his youth.

The United States, the United Nations, the European Union and others have increasingly pressured Maduro over jailed opposition leaders, particularly hardliner Leopoldo Lopez who was convicted of fomenting 2014 protests that led to 43 deaths.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

Recession and other economic woes from the world’s highest inflation rate to shortages of many basic goods are the main factors weighing on Venezuelans ahead of the Dec. 6 vote.

Economists see no easy fix to problems rooted in heavy dependence on oil and rigid currency and price controls.

Torrealba said an opposition-led National Assembly would seek to alleviate the crisis by stimulating production, reversing nationalizations, increasing the central bank’s autonomy and improving salaries and pensions.

“They’ve subjected the Venezuelan people to the same sacrifices as a structural adjustment program - but without any of its benefits,” Torrealba said.

“Nowhere in the world is an oil producer, an OPEC member in a situation like us ... The depth of the crisis is difficult to exaggerate.”

Maduro, 53, has mocked Torrealba in public as looking like an “evil Shrek”, and the government accuses his coalition of being closet coup-plotters who want to put Venezuela’s oil

wealth back in the hands of a U.S.-backed business elite.

The government is predicting victory on Dec. 6 but says it would accept defeat should that happen. It does, however, have some potential ways to minimize the impact, such as bypassing parliament via presidential decrees and using the Supreme Court to derogate measures.

Torrealba said another priority in the legislature would be to ensure greater scrutiny of the government with investigations where necessary and regular questioning of ministers over their department’s spending and actions.

“If what they say does not satisfy us, and we have the necessary majority, we could pass a censure motion and dismiss them,” he added.

Torrealba said the opposition could push for a recall referendum - allowed in 2016 half-way through Maduro’s term if enough voters back it - if the government tries to block its legislative initiatives.

“If instead of facilitating solutions, they try to block, sabotage and boycott them, then we will have no option but to activate mechanisms that the constitution foresees,” he said, noting that constitutional reforms were also a possibility.

Editing by Girish Gupta, Kieran Murray and Alistair Bell

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