Voters reject Chavez's attempt to become president for life

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A humbled Hugo Chavez has paid tribute to his opponents and conceded that the sweeping constitutional changes he had sought to accelerate his socialist revolution in Venezuela and enable him to seek re-election indefinitely had been narrowly defeated in Sunday's national referendum.

"I thank you and congratulate you," President Chavez told his opponents after the results were announced after hours of delay at almost 2am yesterday. Electoral officials confirmed that the referendum had gone down by 51 per cent against 49 per cent. Mr Chavez also called for calm.

It was a stunning reversal for the usually cocksure leader who has never been defeated at the polls since first coming to power in 1999. The former military officer with a fiercely anti-US tongue underestimated resistance to his proposed amendments, which would have removed all limits on his ability to stand for re-election, allowed him to suspend civil liberties in times of emergency, seize private property and significantly expand his grip in the regions. Opposition leaders warned of an impending socialist dictatorship.

In the first hours after the closing of polling stations, three government ministers predicted victory, citing exit polls. But as the evening wore on without any appearance by Mr Chavez on the balcony of the Miraflores, the presidential palace, it became apparent that something had gone awry. When the loss was confirmed, opposition supporters poured on to the streets honking horns and beating drums.

For the US, the largest foreign purchaser of Venezuelan oil, the outcome was sweet relief. "We felt that this referendum would make Chavez president for life, and that's not ever a welcome development," said the US under-secretary of state, Nicholas Burns. "In a country that wants to be a democracy, the people spoke, and the people spoke for democracy and against unlimited power."

The loss may diminish the standing of Mr Chavez across Latin America. While moderate leftist governments, for instance in Brazil and Chile, have kept him at arm's length, he has been a strong ally for other recently elected populist leaders, notably in nearby Bolivia and Ecuador.

But it is unlikely to snuff out his dream of a socialist Venezuela. In the past year, Mr Chavez has moved boldly, closing a television station critical of him, nationalising the utility and telecoms sectors and asserting state ownership of the oil industry. He also retains control of all the major levers of power.

Indeed, in conceding yesterday, Mr Chavez hinted that he intends to press forward. "For me, this isn't a defeat. This is for now," he declared, saying he would "continue in the battle to build socialism". He may also have done himself a favour with his instant and gracious acceptance of the referendum's result.

"This defeat has two sides to it for Chavez," argued Luis Vicente Leon, head of the polling organisation Datanalisis. "He came out the loser after a tough plebiscite campaign but he also gets rid of the accusation that he is a dictator." Nonetheless, the result implies that 2012 will be his last year in office.

Barely half of the 16 million eligible voters went to the polls. A large swathe of voters who might have backed Mr Chavez opted to stay at home. Though he remains popular, mostly with the poor, this time he appears to have over-reached.

"Venezuela said 'no' to socialism, Venezuela said 'yes' to democracy," declared an ecstatic Leopoldo Lopez, the popular Mayor of Caracas, who emerged as a powerful opposition voice during the hard-fought referendum campaign.

Others who lined up against Mr Chavez included huge numbers of students, the Catholic Church, much of the business sector and even some important former allies. Notable among them was the former defence minister, Raul Baduel, who warned that the proposed amendments would amount to a "constitutional coup d'tat".

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