Venezuela's Chavez fails in bid to boost his power
Venezuelans nix sweeping changes
By Oscar Avila
Tribune foreign correspondent
12:44 AM CST, December 3, 2007
For the first time, voters put the brakes on President Hugo Chavez's "socialist revolution" by defeating a referendum to expand presidential powers and eliminate term limits, election officials announced Monday.
Two packages of proposals to overhaul the constitution each went down to defeat by margins of 51 percent to 49 percent, according to the National Electoral Council.
The results were a stunning defeat for Chavez, who had never been on the losing side of an election since winning office in 1998. In the process, he had amassed control of nearly all the political institutions in this major oil-producing nation.
Chavez congratulated a previously fractured opposition that was able to pull together university students, business leaders and even former Chavez loyalists. Opponents had warned that the laundry list of 69 constitutional provisions would create a de facto dictatorship.
"I think the Venezuelan democracy is maturing. Each of these processes that we live, each election, allows our democracy to mature," a subdued Chavez said in a national television address from the Miraflores Palace.
The referendum would have let Chavez seek re-election an unlimited number of times, suspend civil liberties in emergencies and appoint regional officials who would have stripped power from elected governors and mayors.
The measures had caused bitter, and often violent, conflicts among an emboldened opposition and Chavez's loyal supporters who saw the changes as a way to keep moving power from the elite to grass-roots movements.
Opponents, gathered at a meeting hall in a tidy Caracas neighborhood, had insisted that their own exit polls showed positive signs even after Chavez backers took to the streets, thinking their man had won.
"We believe in the vote. We believe in elections. We believe in the construction of a new majority," said Leopoldo Lopez, mayor of the Chacao municipality.
Trend 'not reversible'
Human Rights Watch and other groups had criticized the measures that would have let the president suspend due process and other civil liberties during states of emergency. The referendum also would have ended the autonomy of the Central Bank.
The National Electoral Council reported a generally peaceful day of voting.
Council President Tibisay Lucena, ending eight hours of suspense that had the nation on edge, said around 2 a.m. that there were still uncounted ballots but that "analyzing the transmissions, up to now, it has been determined that this is a trend that is not reversible."
Lucena urged citizens on both sides to remain calm.
"Those who have to celebrate, do so with generosity. Those who have to mourn that their option did not win, go home peacefully," she urged.
Several polls had found Chavez in danger of losing. But analysts thought he might pull out a victory thanks to his charisma and well-honed political organization.
Turnout wasn't particularly high, according to the first reports, but leading opposition blocs vowed to participate instead of boycotting as in a 2005 legislative vote.
Esther Maria Rincon, 43, waited in a line that extended more than a block at the Mariscal Sucre school in the middle-class Libertadores section of the capital. The wait stretched to three hours, but Rincon said she wasn't going anywhere.
"Under no circumstances am I leaving before I cast my vote," said Rincon, a teacher who opposed the referendum. "If we don't vote, then they are going to take away so many of our liberties that we won't be able to breathe."
Citizens in pro-Chavez slums had draped themselves in red for days to support a man many adore and whose image they display nearly everywhere in tribute. They took to the streets before dawn Sunday with loudspeakers blaring a reveille.
In recent days, Chavez had threatened to send supporters to the streets if the opponents tried to challenge the results. He also said he would cut off oil exports to the U.S. if the Bush administration interfered.
But Chavez sounded his first conciliatory note Sunday afternoon after voting at a school in the capital. Holding his infant grandson, Chavez said he was confident that the election would proceed smoothly and said he would respect the results.
U.S. unsure of vote's integrity
The election was complicated because major teams of international observers, such as the European Union and Organization of American States, were not present. U.S. officials said they could not be sure of the election's integrity.
But smaller contingents, including foreign lawmakers and the NAACP, were on hand to monitor an election of about 16 million eligible voters.
Julia Castillo, 28, said she found it difficult to make up her mind because she liked some measures, including reducing the workday from eight hours to six hours and creating a pension system for street vendors and other workers outside the formal economy.
"I think a lot of voters were like me, going back and forth," said Castillo, a linguistics student. "It was hard when so much was in play."
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