CARACAS -- (Reuters) Venezuela's opposition-led National Assembly voted on Tuesday to open a political trial against President Nicolas Maduro for violating democracy, but the socialist government dismissed the move as meaningless.
The South American OPEC member's political standoff has worsened since last week's suspension of an opposition push to hold a referendum to try and recall Maduro, 53.
With that avenue closed, the opposition coalition has raised the stakes, using its power base in congress to begin legal action against Hugo Chavez's unpopular successor.
Unlike neighboring Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from the presidency in August, a trial against Maduro is unlikely to gain traction given the government and Supreme Court have declared congress illegitimate.
"Legally, the National Assembly does not exist," said vice-president Aristobulo Isturiz on Tuesday, referring to Supreme Court rulings that measures in congress are null and void until it removes three lawmakers linked to vote-buying claims.
The opposition has accused Maduro of veering into dictatorship by sidelining the legislature, detaining opponents and leaning on compliant judicial and electoral authorities to block the plebiscite they had been campaigning for.
"We will show clearly to Venezuela and the world that in this crisis, responsibility for breaking the constitution has clearly been Nicolas Maduro's," said majority leader Julio Borges.
The National Assembly ordered Maduro to appear at a session next Tuesday - which he will almost certainly refuse to do - and said it would also consider charges of abandoning his post.
Foes accuse Maduro of wrecking the OPEC nation's economy, where food shortages and soaring prices have left many skipping meals and spending hours in long lines.
"In Venezuela we are battling Satan!" said another opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, ratifying plans for nationwide rallies on Wednesday that the opposition have dubbed 'The Takeover of Venezuela'.
Noting recent shifts to the right in other Latin American countries, Venezuela's government has said it is the victim of an international conspiracy against socialism led by the United States and fanned by servile foreign media.
It blames a long, steep slump in global oil prices and a U.S.-fostered "economic war" for Venezuelans' suffering. It has also accused political foes of seeking a violent coup against Maduro, the former bus driver and union activist who became Chavez's long-serving foreign minister then vice-president.
Maduro came back to Venezuela later on Tuesday after a tour of oil-producing nations and meetings with the Pope and U.N. Secretary General-designate Antonio Guterres.
With Venezuela's military a key factor in past power-shifts, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino criticized congress, vowed the armed forces' loyalty to Maduro, and accused foes of seeking a foreign intervention.