Venezuelans vote on expanding Chavez powers

Other News Materials 3 December 2007 00:44 (UTC +04:00)

Venezuelans voted in a tightly contested referendum on Sunday on whether to let left-wing President Hugo Chavez stay in power for as long as he keeps winning elections or hand him his first defeat at the polls.

The anti-Washington firebrand, who has easily won one election after another against a fragmented opposition, is in the hardest campaign of his life as he moves to deepen his self-styled revolution by reforming the constitution.

He predicts he will win by 10 percentage points but most polls show a neck-and-neck race between backers of the referendum, which Chavez says will usher in "21st century socialism," and those who call it an assault on democracy.

Voters were awakened by a predawn state-ordered bugle call mixed with sirens to prompt them to head to polling stations.

"I voted no because I disagree with everything that they want to impose on us," said Elias Martinez, 55, an actor.

"I do not agree with the (indefinite) re-election because we should live in a country with proper democracy."

With campaigning marred by violence, many Venezuelans fear political turbulence in the OPEC member nation if the losing side refuses to accept the results of Sunday's vote, but early voting appeared to be orderly and under sunny skies.

"We will accept the results whatever they are," Chavez told reporters, holding his newborn grandson, after voting.

"Venezuelans have never voted so often as during these nine years of peaceful and democratic revolution," Chavez said.

Faced with concerns from some of his supporters that the reforms will give Chavez too much power, he has tried to portray the vote as a plebiscite on his rule.

Chavez, a former paratrooper who has led Venezuela since 1999 and is a close ally of Cuba and Iran, has also escalated his verbal attacks on the U.S. government and opponents at home to rally followers.

On Friday he threatened to cut off oil exports to the United States if it meddles in the vote, and last week froze relations with Spain after King Juan Carlos told him to "shut up" at a recent summit.

A "Yes" vote would scrap limits on how long Chavez can rule as president and he has said he will stay on for decades if Venezuelans keep voting for him.

The reforms also would give him control over the central bank and foreign currency reserves bloated by high oil export revenues, reduce the workday to six hours and extend social security benefits to self-employed workers such as street vendors.

Chavez loyalists already control Congress and critics say he has stacked the Supreme Court and the election council with followers. Opponents believe he would use the new powers to impose dictatorial rule.

Many of Chavez's own supporters are unenthusiastic about the reforms and are more concerned about jobs, crime, housing and recent shortages of basic foods.

Government worker Yelitza Rodriguez, 37, told Reuters she voted for the referendum as a step toward creating a more equal society, despite her misgivings about indefinite re-election.

"Most of the reform favours the people," she said.

The opposition has long been divided but was boosted by an anti-Chavez student movement that emerged earlier this year when he shut down Venezuela's most-viewed television station.

Chavez, 53, leads a growing anti-U.S. bloc in South America and his leftist allies in Ecuador and Bolivia also are trying to use constitutional rewrites to increase presidential powers and extend state control of energy resources.