Venezuela stood at a crossroads last night as millions of its citizens queued at polling stations to vote in a referendum on proposed changes to its constitution that would give its populist leader Hugo Chávez new tools to accelerate his socialist revolution and potentially remain President for life.
Residents of the capital, Caracas, were roused at 4.30am by bursts of fireworks announcing the dawn of voting day as well as bugles playing the reveille over loudspeakers. As many as 140,000 soldiers were mobilised across the country to prevent violence at polling stations.
First indications were of a high turn-out at the end of a long campaign that has fired political passions throughout the electorate and ignited huge marches by both supporters and opponents of President Chávez and his proposed amendments.
Even as voting day arrived, there was no telling whether the results will fall in favour of Mr Chávez, who has never lost electorally since first taking power in 1999, or deliver him a stinging defeat. Public opinion surveys suggest a very tight contest.
Polling stations were set to close by late afternoon and election officials were promising to begin issuing preliminary results shortly after sundown.
What appeared to be a strong turn-out did not necessarily bode well for Mr Chávez with some observers suggesting large numbers who might have been planning simply to abstain had decided instead to vote against the changes. "Any growth in participation will be almost exclusively for the 'no' vote," suggested Luis Christiansen, head of the Consultores 21 polling organisation. Altogether, Mr Chávez is seeking 69 amendments to the constitution. While some promised to win broad support, including a shortening of the work day and increased pension rights, others prompted allegations of a dictatorship in the making. They would lift all limits on how many terms Mr Chávez could serve and also allow him to take control of the Central Bank and tighten his grip on the regions.
Also among the changes are provisions that would allow the government to arrest people without charge during periods of emergency rule and transfer private property into communal ownership.
The President was banking on overwhelming support from working classes and the poor who have benefited most from his policies of social largesse, funded by rising oil revenues. His vision of a so-called Bolivarian, socialist revolution has mostly antagonised and frightened the country's middle classes. On the election's eve, Mr Chávez, who is 53, even suggested that he would be interested in retaining power until 2050. "It's still too early for me to go," he declared. "I'll give my life for Venezuela until the last day."
In recent days, he has threatened to cut off all oil supplies to the United States if he finds evidence of US interference with the referendum or attempts to cast doubt on the results. The US is Venezuela's biggest trading partner. He has also ratcheted up a dispute with Spain triggered when King Juan Carlos told him to "shut up" at a recent summit of Latin leaders in Chile.
Most recently, Mr Chávez has threatened to nationalise Spanish banks operating in Venezuela if he does not receive an apology from the King.
Roughly 100 election observers from 39 countries and the European Union fanned across Venezuela to monitor the conduct of the election.Reuse content