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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a former paratroop commander, easily won re-election in December. ((Leslie Mazoch/Associated Press))

Lawmakers loyal to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez approved a law on Wednesday giving him the power to enact sweeping measures by decree, a move critics say is a step toward authoritarianism.

Members of the National Assembly unanimously approved all four articles of the law by a show of hands.

"Viva President Hugo Chavez, long live socialism!" assembly president Cilia Flores said as she proclaimed the law approved. "Fatherland, socialism or death. We will prevail!"

Chavez, who was sworn in for a six-year term in January, said the new law marks the start of a new era of "maximum revolution."

The legislation gives the president special powers for 18 months to transform 11 broadly defined areas, including banking reforms, tax, insurance, financial regulations, security and defence.

In early January, Chavez announced plans to nationalize Venezuela's largest telecommunications company, electrical companies and four lucrative oil projects run by foreign companies Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

Critics call it a power grab and a step toward authoritarian rule.

"We're headed toward a dictatorship, disguised as a democracy," said high school teacher Luis Gonzalez

Chavez has requested special powers twice before, but for more modest legislative changes.

In 1999, shortly after he was first elected, he was only able to push through two new taxes and a revision of the income tax law after facing fierce opposition in Congress. In 2001, by invoking an enabling law for the second time, he decreed 49 laws including controversial agrarian reforms and a law that sharply raised taxes on foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela.

With files from the Associated Press