CARACAS, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez was granted free rein yesterday to accelerate changes in broad areas of society by presidential decree, a move critics said would propel Venezuela toward dictatorship.

Convening in a downtown plaza in a session that resembled a political rally, lawmakers unanimously gave Chavez sweeping powers to legislate by decree and impose his radical vision of a more egalitarian socialist state.

"Long live the sovereign people!" National Assembly President Cilia Flores said as she proclaimed the "enabling law" approved by a show of hands. "Long live President Hugo Chavez! Long live socialism! Fatherland, socialism or death! We will prevail!"

The law gives Chavez, who is beginning a fresh six-year term, more power than he has ever had in eight years as president. He plans to use it over the next 18 months to transform broad areas of public life, including the economy, "social matters," and the very structure of the state.

Chavez's critics called his plans a radical lurch toward authoritarianism by a leader with unchecked power.

"If you have all the power, why do you need more power?" said Luis Gonzalez, a high school teacher who paused in the plaza to watch what he called a "media show" intended to give legitimacy to a repugnant move. "We're headed toward a dictatorship, disguised as a democracy."

Hundreds of Chavez supporters wearing red, the color of the ruling party, gathered in the plaza, waving signs reading "Socialism is democracy" as lawmakers read out passages of the law giving the president special powers to transform 11 areas of Venezuelan law.

"The people of Venezuela, not just the National Assembly, are giving this enabling power to the president of the republic," legislator Iris Varela told the crowd.

Vice President Jorge Rodriguez publicly ridiculed the idea that the law was an abuse of power and argued democracy was flourishing. He thanked the National Assembly for providing "gasoline" to start up the "engine" of societal changes.

After the vote, Chavez remained out of public view but announced plans for a news conference today at the presidential palace.

Chavez, a former paratroop commander who was reelected in December with 63 percent of the vote, has said he would decree nationalizations of Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich, and impose greater state control over the oil and natural-gas industries.