Chávez Wins Removal of Term Limits

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 16, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 15 -- Fourteen months after his first attempt failed, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez won a referendum Sunday to eliminate term limits, paving the way for him to rule far into the 21st century to carry out his socialist transformation of this oil-rich country.

With more than 90 percent of the votes counted, the National Electoral Council announced Sunday night that the government had won handily, garnering more than 6 million votes, or 54.3 percent of the vote. Now in the third year of a six-year term, Chávez, 54, can run for office in 2012 and beyond, if he continues winning elections.

Fireworks went off across Caracas at news of the result, and supporters of the president flowed into the street to celebrate, blowing whistles and waving flags. Flanked by his top deputies and his grandchildren, Chávez addressed a crowd from a balcony at the Miraflores presidential palace.

"I asked you not to fail me, and that I would not fail you," Chávez said. "I knew that you would not fail me. I ratify to you that I will not fail you, the people of Venezuela, the hopes of the people."

He all but promised that he would campaign to be Venezuela's president when his current four-year term ends. What Chávez has been calling the "third cycle of the Bolivarian revolution" had its beginnings when he and other army officers plotted the overthrow of then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. In 1992, he led a failed coup against Pérez. Chávez was jailed, but the assault -- and his words to the country in a brief televised interview -- brought him fame, and in 1998 he won the presidency by a landslide in an election that shattered Venezuela's long-ruling traditional parties.

"With this victory, we begin the third cycle of the Bolivarian revolution," he said Sunday night. "This soldier is a pre-candidate for the presidency of the republic" in the 2012 election.

In December 2007, in Chávez's first electoral defeat, voters rejected a broad constitutional amendment that would have expanded the president's powers. The cornerstone of that proposed change was a provision that would have eliminated term limits.

But Chávez was not daunted by that loss, and soon promised a way to reform the constitution so he could run once more when his second six-year term ends. He had to stage the referendum quickly, while his popularity remained high. Although polls showed a majority of Venezuelans supporting him, officials feared that the plummeting price of oil, coupled with serious problems like runaway crime, could chip at that backing.

Indeed, as he has done in the past, the president characterized the vote as a plebiscite on his rule.

Voters like Roberto Gonzalez, 19, a university student, agreed, saying Chávez needed to be allowed to extend his presidency if Venezuela were to be completely transformed. "I think it is very important he be permitted to run for a new term in 2012 to continue with the revolution that we are building in this country," he said.

The victory was a hard blow for the opposition, which failed to gain traction against Chávez even though its leaders hammered away at issues like the country's high murder rate and its serious economic problems. Opposition leaders quickly recognized the government's victory, while acknowledging the need to better articulate an alternative to the Chávez model.

"The struggle today is not between the government and the opposition," said Ismael García, an opposition lawmaker. "We have to plant, from today on, that in this country there is a different path."

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