Leading article: The unfamiliar taste of defeat

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Many predicted that Venezuela's referendum would be a close- run affair. But yesterday's announcement from the head of the country's National Electoral Council that President Hugo Chavez's proposals for constitutional reform had been rejected by a margin of 51 to 49 per cent nevertheless came as a surprise. This represents President Chavez's first defeat at the ballot box since he came to power a decade ago. Only last year, he was re-elected president with a formidable 63 per cent of the vote. Mr Chavez is not a leader accustomed to losing.

Under these circumstances, the president deserves credit for honouring his promise to respect the result. Mr Chavez swiftly conceded and urged his followers not to turn the vote into a point of conflict. Mr Chavez is, so far, giving the impression of a leader trying to cool the political temperature, rather than raise it for his own ends.

Credit is also due to the Venezuelan public for rejecting these proposals, albeit by a slim margin. Defeat for the president would have been impossible if a large number of Mr Chavez's traditional supporters had not rejected the plans, either by voting against or abstaining. This shows that the Venezuelan electorate is not merely the plaything of a populist president.

The proposed reforms, such as ending presidential term limits and curtailing the autonomy of the Central Bank, were a bad idea. They would have concentrated too much power in hands of the president. Even if Mr Chavez had used these sweeping powers responsibly, there is no guarantee that his successors would have done the same. Venezuela needs more constitutional checks and balances, not fewer.

This is especially true given that Mr Chavez has already displayed some worryingly authoritarian tendencies. He forced a popular opposition media network off the airwaves earlier this year by refusing it a broadcasting licence. These constitutional reforms would only have increased Mr Chavez's ability to silence opposition voices.

Will this put the brakes on President Chavez's project of building "21st-century socialism" and eroding the still staggering disparities of wealth between the richest and poorest in Venezuela? Only up to a point. This victory will unquestionably encourage the opposition. But President Chavez is still in almost complete control of the national assembly. He has been granted powers for the next year that allow him to pass legislation without recourse to parliament. His current term runs until 2013. And, of course, with the price of oil hovering around $100 a barrel, the state coffers of the country with the largest reserves in the Americas are bulging. While these conditions pertain, the extraordinary socialist experiment of President Chavez has a good deal longer to run.

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