Chavez wins vote to scrap term limits in Venezuela
President Hugo Chavez won a referendum to eliminate term limits, according to official results, paving the way for him to run again in 2012 and beyond in what critics fear is an attempt to become president for life. Fireworks exploded in the sky and caravans of supporters celebrated in the streets, waving red flags and honking horns. Thousands of people gathered outside Miraflores Palace, where the former paratroop commander appeared on a balcony to sing the national anthem and address the crowd.world Updated: Feb 16, 2009 10:49 IST
President Hugo Chavez won a referendum to eliminate term limits on Sunday, according to official results, paving the way for him to run again in 2012 and beyond in what critics fear is an attempt to become president for life. Fireworks exploded in the sky and caravans of supporters celebrated in the streets, waving red flags and honking horns. Thousands of people gathered outside Miraflores Palace, where the former paratroop commander appeared on a balcony to sing the national anthem and address the crowd.
"Today we opened wide the gates of the future," proclaimed Chavez, who has governed for a decade and vowed to rule for at least a decade more. "In 2012 there will be presidential elections, and unless God decides otherwise, unless the people decide otherwise, this soldier is already a candidate."
With 94 per cent of the vote counted, 54 per cent had voted in favor of the constitutional amendment, National Electoral Council chief Tibisay Lucena said. Forty-six per cent had voted against the measure to eliminate term limits on all public officials, an irreversible trend. Information Minister Jesse Chacon projected turnout as high as 70 per cent.
At their campaign headquarters, Chavez opponents who say the amendment pushes Venezuela closer to dictatorship hugged one another, and some cried. Several opposition leaders left without speaking, but those who remained said they wouldn't contest the vote.
"We accept this result," said student leader David Smolansky, 23. "We're still standing. We're committed to Venezuela." Voters on both sides said their decision was crucial to the future of Venezuela, a deeply polarized country where Chavez has spent a tumultuous decade in power channeling tremendous oil wealth into combating gaping social inequality.
Venezuela's leftist allies in Latin America have followed the model. Ecuador pushed through a new constitution in September and Bolivia did so in January. Both loosened rules on presidential re-election. Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas also plan to propose an amendment that would let Daniel Ortega run for another consecutive term.
Chavez supporters say their president has given poor Venezuelans cheap food, free education and quality health care, and empowered them with a discourse of class struggle after decades of U.S.-backed governments that favored the rich.
"This victory saved the revolution," said Gonzalo Mosqueda, a 60-year-old shopkeeper, sipping rum from a plastic cup outside the palace. "Without it everything would be at risk _ all the social programs, and everything he has done for the poor." Opponents said Chavez already has far too much power, with the courts, the legislature and the election council all under his influence. Removing the 12-year presidential term limit he pushed through in a 1999 referendum, they say, makes him unstoppable. "If he wins he'll be unleashed and he'll make us like Cuba, because that's what he really wants," Adriana Hernandez, a 19-year-old engineering student, said as she waited in line to vote. "He'll create laws by decree, and go after private property." Chavez took office in 1999 and won support for a new constitution the same year that allowed the president to serve two six-year terms, barring him from the 2012 elections. Sunday's vote was his second attempt to change that; voters rejected a broader referendum in December 2007.
Chavez argued he needs more time to complete Venezuela's transition to socialism _ a process he has said could take another decade or more. He says his "little change" deepens democracy by giving voters more options.
Chavez warned his opponents _ whom he calls "sore losers" _ to respect the results.
"Any attempt to take us down the path of violence, by failing to recognize the results of the people's will, will be neutralized," he said.
First Published: Feb 16, 2009 22:14 IST