Leading article: A perilous new twist in the Venezuelan revolution

Two terms of office ought to be enough, even for Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez has finally got his way. At the second time of asking, the Venezuelan people have voted to remove the constitutional restriction on presidents serving more than two terms in Caracas' Miraflores palace. Mr Chavez lost a referendum proposing constitutional reform two years ago. This time the president has cruised to victory. The way is now open for Mr Chavez to stand for election again in 2012. Technically, he could remain in office for another 12 years; perhaps longer.

To Mr Chavez's supporters this vote result represents a great victory for the "Bolivarian revolution" their hero set in motion in Venezuela in 1998 and has done so much to export across Latin America in the years since. To Mr Chavez's opponents, both internally and abroad, the vote puts Venezuela on a road that can only end in dictatorship and economic ruin.

It requires some work to cut through the thickets of propaganda that have grown up around Mr Chavez's record in power. The self-styled revolutionary attracts admiration and loathing in equal measure and intensity. But the reality is much more mixed than either his hardcore supporters or opponents admit.

Mr Chavez is certainly better than what came before him. The Spanish-descended elite which controlled the country until Mr Chavez's electoral victory in 1998 was grotesquely corrupt and also incompetent. And any fair assessment of Mr Chavez's record would accept that he has delivered tangible benefits for the majority of his people. The economy has grown steadily and tens of thousands of poor Venezuelans have benefited from Mr Chavez's education and health "misiones".

Yet it is also true that, in other respects, quality of life in the country has deteriorated. Violent crime is high and rising. Inflation is the highest in the Americas. Political freedom has been curtailed too. Television stations critical of the government have been bullied. Demonstrations of "contempt" for public officials have been criminalised. The scrapping of term limits will do nothing to help build confidence in the rule of law. All free nations need firm checks on executive power. Developing nations like Venezuela need these checks just as much as richer countries.

Of course, under the new constitution Mr Chavez will have to win at the ballot box to remain in office beyond 2012. But the power of the office confers a considerable advantage in election campaigns. It is also a sad lesson of history that the longer individuals remain in power, the more loath they are to relinquish it. There are signs that Mr Chavez is falling prey to the common delusion that only he can be trusted to guide his nation's destiny. With all this in mind, it is hard to interpret the weekend's referendum result as a positive step for Venezuelan democracy.

Now, more than ever, Venezuela's future depends on a personality. Will Mr Chavez be able to suppress the authoritarian instincts that revealed themselves in his character periodically over the past decade? There are new pressures now. Mr Chavez will find it increasingly difficult to finance his social revolution now oil prices have collapsed. Recession is one battle that the former tank commander has never had to fight before.

This South American nation's long relationship with the charismatic and volatile Mr Chavez has taken a perilous new twist. We must hope that, for the sake of the Venezuelan people, it does not end up dragging the country back into the mire of authoritarianism.