Opposition warns of greater authoritarian rule
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Opponents of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez have warned that the country will be subject to greater authoritarian rule after he won a referendum which could allow him to stay in office for life if he continues to win elections.
AFP - Opponents of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez Monday warned of greater authoritarian rule after he triumphed in a referendum which could allow him to stay in office for life.
Chavez, who has already been president for a decade in this Latin American nation, said he now intended to stand for a third term in 2012, after winning 54.36 percent of preliminary results in Sunday's referendum.
"The doors of the future are wide open," Chavez boomed from the balcony of his Miraflores palace after winning the referendum which scraps the previous rules requiring the president to stand down after two terms in office.
Chavez's victory strengthens his mandate, which would normally have ended in 2013, and could prompt him to expand his self-styled socialist revolution, which has led to nationalizations and greater state control over the economy.
In this increasingly polarized country, the opposition garnered 45.63 percent after more than 11 million people out of some 17 million eligible voters went to the ballot.
The leftist leader is popular with many of the country's poor for his oil-funded health care and education programs, but blamed by a vocal opposition for rising crime, corruption and inflation.
Critics charge that Chavez has too much power, holding sway over the courts, lawmakers and the election council.
"With this result, the president can deepen the path to socialism and he'll be tempted to reinforce the authoritarian character of Venezuela's politics," warned international relations professor Carlos Romero.
There were also alleged flaws in the weekend ballot.
"Chavez won the right to re-election after a process marred with faults," the opposition El Nacional newspaper headline read.
The opposition had widely criticized Chavez's massive state-sponsored campaign for the vote.
"This was the campaign with the most abuses of public resources that we have ever seen," said opposition member Carlos Vecchio.
The fragmented opposition includes bishops, students and business people but has so far provided no clear alternative to Chavez.
Its leaders are now focusing on elections next year to renew the parliament, which is currently controlled by Chavez supporters.
"We have to analyze what we did well and what we could do much better," said opposition Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma.
Venezuela becomes the first Latin American country to adopt unlimited electoral terms with Sunday's vote.
The president was previously allowed two consecutive terms.
The proposed amendment was Chavez's second bid to extend presidential term limits after a package of sweeping constitutional changes, including an end to presidential term limits, was struck down by voters in December 2007.
But the vote also comes amid warnings that Chavez's social programs in this OPEC member nation could be hard hit by tumbling oil prices.
"I think that the greatest challenge the government now faces is governing in the face of crisis and not falling into triumphalism," said Venezuelan analyst Miguel Tinker Salas of Pomona College, California.
As Chavez-dominated national television stations on Monday played patriotic songs and images, the private opposition-led press lauded the high turnout -- the most in the last four elections -- and reported complaints about voting machines.
From Buenos Aires to Havana and beyond, many watched the vote on the future of the fierce anti-liberal US foe and Latin American leftist champion, but few reacted to the result.
Chavez said he received his first congratulations from his mentor, former Cuban president Fidel Castro.
The latest vote came only three months after regional and municipal elections in which the opposition gained ground.
"We don't like Chavez, his people, or unlimited re-election," said opposition supporter Rosi Gonzales. "He's destroyed the country."
Chavez supporters meanwhile reveled in another victory for their larger-than-life leader.
"Chavez has been a president who loves the people and has fought for them," said Diazmelis Benitez, from a working class neighborhood of Caracas.
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