Venezuelans Vote in Tightly Contested Referendum

Venezuelans voted in a tightly contested Sunday referendum on whether to expand President Hugo Chavez's power and allow the leftist leader to stay in office for as long as he keeps winning elections.

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 and fake cannon fire to prompt them to head out to their polling stations.

"I've always voted with Chavez but this time no," said Luis Salvador Duran, a Caracas taxi driver. "He has already been in office for nine years. We do not need a life-long president like (Cuba's) Fidel Castro."

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

Hugo Chavez
Howard Yanes
Hugo Chavez

Chavez, a 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 U.S. government and opponents at home to rally followers.

President for Life?

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 like street vendors.

"The reform is very important for the country, we want to support our president," said Marlene Vanegas, 70, who described herself as a "full-time revolutionary."

"(He) was sent to us by God."

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.

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.