Chávez for life? Venezuelans to vote on re-election

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

The anti-American firebrand, who has easily won one election after another against a fragmented opposition, is in the hardest campaign of his life.

He predicts he will win by 10 percentage points but most polls show a neck-and-neck race between backers of the constitutional reforms Chávez says will usher in “21st century socialism”, and those who call them an assault on democracy.

With campaigning marred by violence, many Venezuelans fear political turbulence in the nation if the losing side refuses to accept the results of Sunday’s vote.

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

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

“Whoever votes ‘Yes’ is voting for Chávez and whoever votes ‘No’ is voting for George Bush, President of the United States,” Chávez told supporters at a massive rally in Caracas on Friday.

President for life?

A “Yes” vote would scrap limits on how long Chávez 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 informal workers like street vendors.

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

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

Chávez (53) leads a growing anti-US 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.

Chávez accuses the Bush administration of planning to meddle with the refendum vote and has threatened to halt oil exports to the US.

He froze relations with Spain after King Juan Carlos publicly told him to “shut up” at a recent summit, and he threatened on Saturday to expel Spanish oil company Repsol from Venezuela if a right-wing party returns to power in Spain.

He has also cut diplomatic ties with neighbouring Colombia after its conservative president, Alvaro Uribe, ejected Chávez from his role as mediator in talks aimed at freeing hostages held by left-wing Colombian guerrillas.—Reuters

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