CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez won a referendum to eliminate term limits Sunday, paving the way for him to run again in 2012 — and beyond — and push through his vision of a socialist Venezuela.
Fireworks exploded in the sky and caravans of supporters celebrated in the streets, waving red flags and honking horns.
With 94 percent of the vote counted, 54 percent had voted in favor of the constitutional amendment, National Electoral Council chief Tibisay Lucena announced. Forty-six percent had voted against the measure to eliminate term limits on all public officials, too few to make up the distance with the remaining votes.
"Today we opened wide the gates of the future. Venezuela will not return to its past of indignity," Chavez proclaimed after singing the national anthem from the balcony of his Miraflores palace.
Voters on both sides said their decision was crucial to the future of Venezuela, a deeply polarized country where Chavez has spent a tumultuous decade in power channeling tremendous oil wealth into combating gaping social inequality.
The recorded blare of bugles jarred Venezuelans awake before dawn, and long lines formed even before the polls opened at 6 a.m. Information Minister Jesse Chacon projected turnout as high as 70 percent.
People voting "yes" said Chavez has given poor Venezuelans cheap food, free education and quality health care, and empowered them with a discourse of class struggle after decades of U.S.-backed governments that favored the rich. No successor has emerged, and voters said they worry their gains will vanish if Chavez leaves office.
"If Chavez loses, his social achievements will all disappear," said Richard Mijares, a 40-year-old secretary.
People voting "no" said Chavez already has far too much power, with the courts, the legislature and the election council all under his influence. Removing the 12-year presidential term limit he pushed through in a 1999 referendum, they said, would make him unstoppable.
"If he wins he'll be unleashed and he'll make us like Cuba, because that's what he really wants," said Adriana Hernandez, a 19-year-old engineering student. "He'll create laws by decree, and go after private property."
Chavez took office in 1999 and won support for a new constitution the same year that allowed the president to serve two six-year terms, barring him from the 2012 elections. Sunday's vote was his second attempt to change that. Voters rejected a broader referendum in December 2007.
Venezuela's leftist allies in Latin America have followed the model. Ecuador pushed through a new constitution in September and Bolivia did so in January. Both loosened rules on presidential re-election. Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas also plan to propose an amendment that would let Daniel Ortega run for another consecutive term.
Venezuela has seen 15 elections or referendums in Chavez's decade, which Chavez supporters say proves his dedication to democracy and which supporters call tiresome.
Chavez argued he needs more time to complete Venezuela's transition to socialism — a process he has said could take another decade or more. He says his "little change" deepens democracy by giving voters more options.
Chavez warned his opponents — whom he calls "sore losers" — to respect the results.
"Any attempt to take us down the path of violence, by failing to recognize the results of the people's will, will be neutralized," he proclaimed.