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But now the polemical populist says he needs at least 10 more years – to deepen the socialist project that his administration says is bringing power to the poor for the first time in history.
So today Venezuelans will head to the polls to vote on a referendum to decide whether to allow him to run indefinitely for office.
This is not the first time that the removal of term limits has been put to voters here.
At the end of 2007, President Chávez attempted to reform the constitution, which would have allowed him to re-seek the presidency after his current term ends in 2013. That effort failed.
His critics say Sunday’s vote is just another attempt to concentrate power in the hands of a man whose political party already controls the nation’s most influential institutions, including the military, courts, and congress.
His supporters say this is democracy at work: if Chávez is to remain in power forever, they say, it is because voters continue to elect him to the office.
Whatever the outcome, the vote will shape the contours of the Venezuelan political landscape for years to come and will influence the staying power of Chávez’s socialist “revolution” here and in other Latin American countries.
“There is a perception here in Venezuela, on both sides, that this process of change is totally dependent on Chávez,” says Steve Ellner, a Venezuela-based political analyst and author of “Rethinking Venezuelan Politics.” “There is a lot at stake for both.”
The current constitution of 1999 does not allow elected officials to serve more than two consecutive terms. Sunday’s referendum will ask voters whether the nation should do away with such term limits for the head of state and other officials.
According to the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis, 51.5 percent of those surveyed in January said that they sided with the referendum. That gives Chávez a slight lead but it’s close enough that the outcome is expected to depend on which side can mobilize the most voters.
Both sides have been campaigning hard. In downtown Caracas, multi-colored signs bearing the words “Si,” paper the lampposts. Street corners are filled with voters handing out “Si” and “No” fliers. Students who oppose the administration’s project, and who played a critical role in the defeat of the 2007 constitution, have organized new rallies, as have Chávez supporters.
Overall the president remains extremely popular. Since taking office in 1999, Chávez has won almost every election held – more than a dozen. The poor comprise an important part of his base. Poverty, according to government figures, has been cut in half in the past five years. Unemployment has also fallen, and his social programs, called missions, have brought healthcare and education to the most marginalized neighborhoods.