A vote to choose a new president of Venezuela’s congress ended in chaos on Sunday as legislators loyal to President Nicolás Maduro staged a vote to oust opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the country’s self-declared interim president.
As lawmakers traded punches and 36-year-old Mr Guaidó tried to scale the railings to get into the building, rebel opposition deputy Luis Eduardo Parra was chosen to be the new head of congress, or National Assembly.
Mr Guaidó and his supporters accused the Maduro government of undermining the rule of law to seize control of the last democratically elected institution in the country.
“This is a coup d’état against the constitution and the rule of law,” opposition legislator William Barrientos told the Financial Times as the dust settled at the end of a farcical congressional session.
“We urge the international community, the UN, The Hague and the more than 60 countries that support the reconstruction of Venezuelan democracy to stay alert in the face of this coup, carried out by Maduro and his cronies.”
The US said it would continue to recognise Mr Guaidó as the leader of the National Assembly and Venezuela’s interim president.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, called the vote “farcical”, saying it was not legal because it failed to achieve a quorum.
“On behalf of the United States, I congratulate Juan Guaidó on his re-election as president of the Venezuelan National Assembly and condemn the failed efforts of the former Maduro regime to negate the will of the democratically elected National Assembly,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement on Sunday.
He added that the Maduro regime had forcibly denied Mr Guaidó and his supporters access to the National Assembly after an “undemocratic campaign of bribery and intimidation” had failed to yield results.
Mr Guaidó needed a simple majority in the 167-seat chamber and his supporters were confident he would get it. For the past year, his claim to be the interim president of Venezuela has been based entirely on the fact that he headed the assembly.
The government will now allege that since he no longer holds the position, his claim to the Venezuelan presidency is even more tenuous.
When Mr Guaidó arrived at the ornate, gold-domed building in central Caracas, security forces barred his path, along with about 30 of his legislators.
At one point he tried to climb over the iron railings surrounding the building but his opponents and security forces dragged him back.
Inside, socialist members of congress tried to start proceedings. The handful of opposition legislators present tried to stop them and scuffles broke out.
The session started without microphones and — in a simple show of hands — voted in Mr Parra to replace Mr Guaidó. Until recently, Mr Parra was a member of the opposition coalition but was suspended by his party amid allegations of corruption.
Mr Guaidó retains the support of the US and dozens of other countries in his bid to unseat Mr Maduro, who has been in power since 2013.
Colombia condemned the Maduro regime for barring Mr Guaidó from congress.
José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch, said the move would fail to win international support.
“Does the dictator really believe that any democratic government will accept this gross farce?” he wrote on Twitter.
The opposition was due to hold a hastily arranged alternative vote later on Sunday, at which it is sure to renew Mr Guaidó’s mandate as president of congress.
The National Assembly has been a thorn in Mr Maduro’s side since 2015, when the opposition won two-thirds of its seats. By 2017, the government had withdrawn its deputies from the chamber and set up its own alternative congress, called the National Constituent Assembly. Its members are all government loyalists and it rubber-stamps all government proposals.