Venezuela's Maduro tightens grip on power, helped by coronavirus lockdown

President Nicolas Maduro accuses opposition leader Juan Guaido of being behind a military raid designed to oust him during an online press conference in Caracas on May 6, 2020.

(CNN)Venezuela's embattled ruler President Nicolas Maduro has made the most of the coronavirus lockdown to stamp his authority over the country's key political institutions, all in the matter of a week.

On Tuesday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court suspended the leadership of the main opposition party Primero Justicia and ruled that a pro-government lawmaker should be in charge. On Monday, the same happened to the second-largest opposition party, Acción Democrática. Both decisions were based on complaints from expelled party members.
A week earlier, the nation's highest court appointed the new members of the Electoral Council, a body of five officials tasked with organizing elections. Of the new magistrates, two previously served as judges in the same Supreme Court, and one is a former Socialist lawmaker who's been under US sanctions since 2017.
    The court, which has traditionally supported the president, made the decision even though the Venezuelan constitution states the National Assembly -- which is controlled by the opposition -- should elect the members of the Electoral Council. The ruling was part of a pattern whereby the top court has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the assembly.
    Hailing the rulings on Tuesday, Maduro declared: "We're going to change everything that must be changed at the National Assembly. With lots of strength and lots of faith, our action will be grandiose."

    Coronavirus politics

    The rapid-succession rulings by the Supreme Court suggest the equilibrium is tilting in Venezuela and that Maduro feels confident enough to cement his rule while the opposition has been effectively silenced by coronavirus.
    Until at least March 2020, Venezuela lived through a sort of institutional limbo: on one side was Maduro, who has ruled the country since 2013 and who is accused of rigging election after election and transforming his presidency in a dictatorship. On the other side was Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly who the US and tens of other countries recognize as the legitimate interim president as long as Maduro stays in power.
    Guaidó had no authority in Caracas, but he had the support of the international community, exemplified by when he was invited as a guest to President Trump's State of the Union address in February.
    Coronavirus changed all of that: Suddenly political and institutional clashes were pushed aside and Maduro asserted himself as the person in charge of combatting the pandemic.
    He issued curfews, received medical aid from China, and started appearing on television detailing measures and announcing new cases and deaths almost every day.
    With a population in lockdown to prevent virus spread, the opposition could no longer organize street protests or even gather in person at the National Assembly.
    "It's pretty clear that Maduro took advantage of the pandemic," Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the think tank Washington Office for Latin America, told CNN. "If at any moment in the past two years he appeared weak or not in charge, he's making up for it now."
    To date, Venezuela has registered less than 3,500 coronavirus cases and only 28 deaths, although experts doubt the reliability of those figures as the country's health system is in disarray and has limited capacity to perform Covid-19 tests.
    Luisa Ortega Diaz, a former attorney general turned Maduro's foe, told CNN she could not believe the success story painted by the government. "It sickens me that Maduro claims to be this anti-Covid paladin when he has no interest in the welfare of the people."
    Ortega though admitted Maduro has been able to use the pandemic to strengthen his rule.

    Maduro's great leap forward

    Maduro's latest moves have not passed under-noticed. On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the new Electoral Council "illegal" and said the sentence "takes Venezuela further away from a democratic transition."
    Similar criticism came from the European Union and the Lima Group, which pulls together several Latin American countries that do not recognize Maduro.
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