CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez says a referendum victory that removed limits on his re-election is a mandate to intensify his socialist agenda for decades to come. Opponents warn of an impending dictatorship.
Both sides had called the outcome of Sunday's vote key to the future of this South American country, split down the middle between those who worship the president for redistributing Venezuela's oil riches and those who see him as a power-hungry autocrat.
"Those who voted "yes" today voted for socialism, for revolution," Chavez thundered to thousands of ecstatic supporters jamming the streets around the presidential palace. Fireworks lit up the Caracas skyline, and one man walked though the crowd carrying a painting of Chavez that read: "Forever."
Josefa Dugarte stared at the crowd from the stoop of her apartment building with look of dismay.
"These people don't realize what they have done," she muttered.
With 94 percent of the vote counted, official results showed the amendment passing 54 percent to 46 percent, an irreversible trend, and opposition leaders accepted the results. Tibisay Lucena, president of National Electoral Council, said turnout was 67 percent.
The constitutional overhaul allows all public officials to run for re-election as many times as they want, removing barriers to a Chavez candidacy in the next presidential elections in 2012 and beyond.
"In 2012 there will be presidential elections, and unless God decides otherwise, unless the people decide otherwise, this soldier is already a candidate," Chavez said to applause. First elected in 1998, he has said he might stay in power until 2049, when he'll be 95.
But analysts said Chavez shouldn't count on getting re-elected just yet.
"Chavez's intention is clear: He aspires to be president for life," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "He is convinced he embodies the popular will and is indispensable to the country's progress. But his capacity to pull this off is far from assured."
He said the global financial crisis and the plunging price of oil, which accounts for 94 percent of Venezuela's exports and nearly half its federal budget, will limit Chavez's ability to maintain the level of public spending that has fueled his popularity.
"The greatest challenge the government now faces is governing in the face of crisis and not falling into triumphalism," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
At their campaign headquarters, Chavez opponents hugged one another, and some cried. They said the results were skewed by Chavez's broad use of state resources to get out the vote, through a battery of state-run news media, pressure on 2 million public employees and frequent presidential speeches which all television stations were required to air.
With the courts, the legislature and the election council all under his influence, and now with no limits on his re-election, officials say Chavez is virtually unstoppable.
"Effectively this will become a dictatorship," opposition leader Omar Barboza told The Associated Press. "It's control of all the powers, lack of separation of powers, unscrupulous use of state resources, persecution of adversaries."