Chavez Proposes Referendum to Stay President Until 2031

President Hugo Chavez said that if opposition parties boycott December's presidential election he would call a referendum asking voters to decide whether he should govern Venezuela for the next 25 years.

Speaking Saturday at a stadium packed with supporters in central Lara state, Chavez rejected allegations he was a power-hungry tyrant but said he might seek to extend his rule beyond current term limits if the opposition pulls out of the presidential vote, as it did last year's congressional election.

CountryWatch: Venezuela

"I am going to call a referendum," Chavez said. "I am going to ask you, all the people, if you agree with Chavez being president until 2031."

The Venezuelan Constitution allows a president to be re-elected only once in immediate succession. Chavez is eligible for re-election to another six-year term in December, but if he wins he wouldn't be able to run again in 2012.

It wasn't clear if Chavez, 51, was talking about holding a legally binding vote to eliminate limits on re-election or proposing a plebiscite. Before Chavez took the stage, thousands of his supporters chanted: "Oh, no! Chavez won't go!"

Opposition leaders accuse Chavez, a former paratroop commander first elected in 1998, of becoming increasingly authoritarian and opening dangerous divisions along class lines in Venezuela — the world's fifth largest oil exporter.

Chavez supporters won all 167 seats in the National Assembly on Dec. 4 after major opposition parties boycotted the election, saying they did not trust Venezuela's electoral system or the country's elections council. The opposition has raised doubts about the nation's electoral registry, an electronic voting system and electoral audits conducted by the council.

Chavez on Saturday slammed political foes for suggesting that the elections council, which was appointed recently by pro-government lawmakers, is biased in his favor.

"They already started saying the recently appointed elections council is subordinate to Chavez, that fraud is being prepared," he said.

Polls indicate Chavez is likely to win the Dec. 3 election, and international observers have signed off on recent votes as fair.

Four government opponents have announced plans to run against Chavez, although not all of them have agreed to participate in primaries to choose a single opposition candidate.

The opposition candidates include Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor fiercely critical of Chavez; William Ojeda, a journalist and former Chavez ally; Julio Borges, a conservative attorney; and Roberto Smith, an ex-infrastructure minister.