Venezuela votes on president's reforms

HUGO CHAVEZ, the Venezuelan President, triumphed at the polls and secured his position for up to 12 more years when the nation approved his new constitution, with 71.2 per cent voting in favour of his reforms.

Over half the electorate, however, abstained from thelandmark national referendum on Wednesday. Supporters blamed the low voter turn out on torrential rains, which triggered mudslides north of the capital Caracas that killed 50 people and forced 120,000 to evacuate their homes. But some analysts believe that Mr Chavez's critics prefer to lie low while he consolidates his power.

During his campaigning, Mr Chavez denounced his opposition as members of a "rancid oligarchy", comprised of "degenerates" and "squealing pigs". When church leaders cautioned against some of the constitutional changes - which will empower the military, abolish the Senate, and even alter the country's name to the Bolivaran Republic of Venezuela - the former paratrooper said that they should be "exorcised".

Mr Chavez is calling for new elections early next year, and with the military now eligible to vote, he is expected to ride on his wave of popularity before economic realities begin to bite. As old institutions are scrapped and corruption rooted out, the rich are getting nervous. Since the left-leaning populist took office in February, the economy has contracted by 10 per cent and an estimated $4bn has left the country. While Mr Chavez boasts that his constitution "puts a brake on savage neo-liberalism", it also reduces the working week to 44 hours, curtails market forces and inhibits private initiative.

Extensive new pension benefits and universal free health programmes guaranteed by the new charter will be funded by state petro-dollars, but some economists warn that they will soon become an excessive financial burden. They worry that President Chavez, whose 1992 attempted coup was foiled, is grounding this "peaceful revolution" on class conflicts that will alienate investors.

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