Hugo Chávez for life?

Venezuelans voted Sunday to scrap presidential term limits, opening the door for their leftist president to rule indefinitely.

Jorge Silva/Reuters
Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez celebrated outside the Miraflores Palace on Sunday.
Fernando Llano/AP
In Caracas, Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez waved to the crowd after the official results on Sunday's referendum were released.

With a clear popular victory Sunday in his bid to end term limits, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has injected new vigor into his controversial "21st-century socialism" movement and secured his role at a time when the economy is starting to falter.

His win has roused consternation among his critics, who accuse him of single-handedly focusing on maintaining power, and dashed the hopes of a political opposition that had gained ground in recent elections and were beginning to focus beyond 2013, when Mr. Chávez would have had to step down had he lost the referendum.

Chávez's decisive win, with a near 10-point margin, hands him the prospect of unlimited rule.

Political observers say that it will also embolden his socialist project, as each of his electoral victories has in the past, and could reinvigorate the efforts of his allies in Latin America who are also seeking longer mandates.

"He is going to take advantage of this moment, saying the people voted for socialism," says Ricardo Sucre, a political analyst in Caracas. "He is going to say this gives him the authorization to take more power and advance his project."

Happy crowds in Caracas

On Sunday night, ebullient crowds took to the streets in Caracas. They set off fireworks as electoral officials, with 94 percent of votes counted and results revealing an irreversible trend, showed that 54 percent of Venezuelans had voted to remove term limits for elected officials. It was a much stronger win than the polls had predicted.

"Those who voted 'yes' today voted for socialism, for revolution," Chávez told supporters in downtown Caracas who wore T-shirts with Chávez's image emblazoned on them, waved flags, and held up cut-out images of their leader.

Such rhetoric is no surprise, says Mr. Sucre, who expects Chávez to take action to back up his words soon.

After Chávez won handily in Venezuela's 2006 presidential elections, he quickly moved to nationalize major industries, such as telecommunications.

Chávez has earned almost religious reverence among his followers, especially in poor areas, where he has channeled billions of dollars into social programs in the form of health and literacy programs.

"I love my president," says an elated Lourdes Mesones, a stay-at-home mom from the poor neighborhood of Petare. "He helps my people, and no one else ever has."

But the victory was a blow to his detractors. "We have had 10 years, and he's done some good things," says Arles Finol, an administrative assistant in Caracas. "But he has not taken care of the fundamentals, especially corruption and insecurity. We don't need to give him more time, we need change."

Big setback for the opposition

It was also a major setback for Chávez's opposition, who hung up signs reminding residents of high inflation and homicide rates, issues that hurt Chávez's party in local elections in November.

Chávez had lost a similar attempt to remove term limits just 15 months ago, with a constitutional reform package that included an article for unlimited reelection of heads of state. His loss, his first since taking office in 1999, emboldened opposition political parties. But Sunday's victory – helped by heavy campaigning on state-funded media – shows his resilience.

Now the opposition fears that nothing will stand in his way. Chávez already controls the nation's institutions, from the congress to the courts.

"Until now he has showed a moderate authoritarianism, but indefinite rule opens the door to full dictatorship," says Elias Pino Iturrieta, a Venezuelan historian.

Launching his 2012 bid already?

Already Chávez used the referendum victory as an opportunity to launch a new presidential bid.

From the balcony of the presidential palace, Miraflores, he made it clear: "In 2012, there will be presidential elections, and unless God decides otherwise, unless the people decide otherwise, this soldier is already a candidate," he told his supporters.

Many seem unconcerned about the possibility of perpetual rule by Chávez, and say it's a sign of democracy and the people's will, not a dictator trying to sustain his grasp on power. "Let him be re-elected four, five times, then someone else can take over," says Ms. Mesones.

"Then maybe his daughter can become president," she jokes.

That scenario might be tough in today's climate: Chávez faces a worsening economy with the sudden drop in oil prices and high inflation that has disgruntled his most devout followers. In fact, observers say that he pushed to hold this referendum, which was cobbled together in just two months, before the economy worsened. "He moved now on this before the possibility of taking unpopular measures such as reducing spending on his social programs," says Mr. Pino Iturrieta.

A boost to fellow Latin leftists

Whether Chávez can hold on to power indefinitely is an open question, but his power today is clear, and could set a standard in the rest of the region.

Leaders across Latin America have been attempting to remove the barriers that keep them from running again for office.

Last month, Bolivians voted for a new constitution, which hands President Evo Morales the right to another presidential bid. Ecuadorians also voted into existence a new constitution in September that allows President Rafael Correa to try to stay in office until 2017. And President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua plans to propose a new amendment to allow him another consecutive presidential term.

Many see Chávez as the leader of the movement and say that his decisive victory will embolden leaders elsewhere. "This victory will stimulate them in their efforts in their own countries," says Sucre.

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