CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced an imminent cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday after his ruling Socialist Party was crushed in legislative elections, but he vowed to veto opposition plans for an amnesty law for jailed politicians.
Current National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello added that the government would appoint 12 new supreme court judges, among other “tasks,” before Dec 31.
The new legislature, two-thirds of which will be made up of opposition politicians, is set to begin work in January.
Venezuela’s government was stunned by Sunday’s elections, winning just 55 seats against the opposition’s 112 and losing control of the National Assembly for the first time since former President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999.
One of the opposition’s main aims in the new legislature is to secure the release of jailed politicians, most notably Leopoldo Lopez who was imprisoned for leading anti-government protests in 2014 that triggered violence leading to more than 40 deaths.
Maduro, though, was defiant during a three-hour television appearance on Tuesday night.
“I will not accept any amnesty law, because they violated human rights,” Maduro said. “They can send me a thousand laws but the murderers have to be prosecuted and have to pay.”
Venezuela’s opposition urged Maduro earlier on Tuesday to stop making excuses for his candidates’ defeat and instead urgently tackle food shortages and free the jailed politicians.
The worst economic crisis in the OPEC country’s recent history has Venezuelan staples including flour, milk, meat and beans running scarce. Shortages are particularly bad for the poor and beyond the capital, Caracas, with shoppers lining up for hours hoping a delivery truck will arrive.
“We urge the government to stop crying and start working,” Democratic Unity coalition leader Jesus Torrealba told a news conference under a sign reading: “Thank you Venezuela, we won!”
The government boosted imports in the run-up to the election, but overall shipments have tumbled this year because of a recession and low oil prices, with many economists warning the scarcity may worsen over Christmas.
“We’re just a few weeks away from a very serious problem in terms of food,” Torrealba said.
Anger over shortages propelled the opposition to a long-elusive victory in Sunday’s vote for a new National Assembly.
The coalition even swept traditional bastions of “Chavismo,” the movement named after former President Hugo Chavez, including the Caracas slums and Chavez’s home state of Barinas.
New legislators plan to launch investigations into corruption and pressure the government into publishing economic data such as inflation, which have not been divulged in a year.
Despite an overwhelming mandate for change, there is little the new opposition-controlled legislature will be able to do about unwieldy currency and price controls, which are a major factor in the economic problems.
‘CLEAR SIGNAL FOR MADURO’
The opposition has clinched 112 seats in the National Assembly to the Socialists' 55, the National Electoral Council's website confirmed on Tuesday night. (goo.gl/zTTHoc)
That supermajority of two-thirds gives the opposition a strong platform to challenge the broadly unpopular Maduro.
Sunday’s defeat has not prompted a mea culpa from the government or promises of substantial reform, although Maduro is facing heat from dissenting factions within his own coalition, once united in devotion to Chavez.
“The bad guys won,” Maduro said on Tuesday night.
A senior government representative who asked not to be named acknowledged the election result was a clear signal for Maduro, adding there needed to be profound discussion and change within the government or it will face very serious trouble.
Maduro has said the Socialist Party will hold an “extraordinary congress” and established commissions to “evaluate the situation and emerge with concrete proposals,” suggesting some soul-searching is in store.
During his Tuesday night program, Maduro announced an imminent Cabinet reshuffle, although he gave no details.
He and his top officials continue to blame an “economic war” for confusing Venezuelans, describe the opposition as a “counter-revolutionary” force, and warn disenchanted former supporters they will regret their vote.
Maduro has said the opposition is a U.S.-backed elite who would snatch government-provided houses and subsidized food from the poor.
State television, which largely blocks out opposition rallies and news conferences, has since Sunday minimized coverage of the election, instead broadcasting Chavez speeches, sports and features on the government’s social projects.
“This government does not understand that it lost, nor the magnitude of what is at stake,” opposition activist Maria Corina Machado said.
Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons; Editing by Peter Cooney and Richard Pullin