MEXICO CITY — The Venezuelan government said Monday it would pardon more than 100 political opponents who had been targeted for prosecution in what would amount to the country’s largest political amnesty in almost a decade.
The move came as President Nicolás Maduro tries to break an opposition boycott of coming congressional elections.
But the initial reaction from many opposition figures was scathing.
Mr. Maduro issued a presidential decree that ends criminal cases against more than 20 jailed and exiled opposition politicians, as well dozens of political activists, the president’s spokesman, Jorge Rodríguez, said in a surprise national address Monday.
Many people on the list have never been formally charged or even presented to court, and rights activists urged caution until the measure is put into effect.
The government portrayed the president’s action as a peace offering to opponents as the country staggers under economic collapse amid tightening American sanctions aimed at forcing Mr. Maduro from power. It said the goal of the decree is to “deepen the process of national unity” as the Dec. 6 congressional vote nears.
But many of the politicians pardoned on Monday took quickly to social media to denounce the pardons, saying they had never committed any crime in the first place.
Mr. Maduro “is feigning clemency in his desperation to save the outcome of the farce” of the elections, said one pardoned opposition lawmaker, Juan Pablo Guanipa, who was stripped of a victory in a governor’s race and later charged with treason without evidence.
“You don’t have authority to pardon anyone,” Mr. Guanipa wrote in a Twitter post after the announcement.
A victory in the elections would allow Mr. Maduro to reclaim control of the National Assembly from the opposition and extinguish the last source of organized challenge to his rule. But with the opposition boycotting the elections, he has found himself struggling to create enough competition to persuade the international community to accept the outcome and ease the sanctions. The government-controlled electoral council extended the registration deadline three times after failing to attract enough candidates.
Some noted that the decree did not offer pardons to some of Mr. Maduro’s biggest opponents, or to any of the dozens of military members and police officers jailed for allegedly plotting against the government.
Venezuela’s moderate opposition leaders largely declined to comment on the pardon, fueling speculation over what political concessions may have been made to smooth the pardons’ path. Some opposition leaders have spoken out publicly in recent weeks against the election boycott, arguing that ceding to Mr. Maduro total control of Venezuela’s political arena will only strengthen his rule.
One Venezuelan political pollster, Jesús Seguías, said the president’s tactic was clever.
“This is a very intelligent move by Maduro that attempts to unblock the country’s political paralysis,” Mr. Seguías said. “This measure seeks to delegitimize radical parts of the opposition and force a moderate majority to participate in elections.”
In their scale, the pollster said, the pardons represent Mr. Maduro’s biggest concession to opponents in his seven years in power, and signal the government’s desperation to secure an end to the sanctions suffocating the already moribund economy.
The pardon decree comes after years of tightening political persecution in Venezuela.
Mainstream opposition parties have been destroyed, protests have been criminalized, and the vast majority of opposition politicians have been hounded from office. Nearly 400 Venezuelans were being been held as political prisoners before Monday’s pardons, according to rights groups.
Isayen Herrera contributed reporting from Caracas.