Venezuelans vote on Chavez's political gamble

CARACAS (AFP) - The political future of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hung in the balance on Sunday, as millions of voters went to the polls in a hotly contested referendum that could scrap term limits. Chavez, whose term expires in 2013, pledged to respect the outcome of the referendum which, if approved, would change the constitution to allow Chavez and other officials to seek re-election as often as they wish. "My political destiny is being decided," the 54-year-old said after casting his ballot in a west Caracas. The vote could decide the whether his self-styled socialist revolution stretches into the next decade, and comes amid warnings that Chavez's popular social programs could be hard hit by tumbling oil prices. "We'll recognise the result, whatever it is, once it is announced by the National Electoral Council," he said, surrounded by family members at a Caracas news conference. The proposed amendment is Chavez's second bid to extend presidential term limits - currently two consecutive terms. In December 2007 a package of sweeping constitutional changes, including an end to term limits, was struck down by voters. Some 40 per cent of almost 17 million eligible voters had turned out at midday, according to Chavez. Pundits are waiting to see how many "undecided voters" turnout and which side they back following Chavez's wafer-thin lead in last-minute polling surveys. Chavez supporters let off firecrackers and played bugles to ensure citizens woke up early ahead of the start of voting at 6:00 am (1030 GMT). Chavez, first elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2006, is wildly popular with many of the country's poor because of his backing for health and education programs. He is blamed by a vocal opposition for rising crime, corruption and inflation. "Hugo Chavez is the only one, there's no alternative," said 68-year-old Conchita Reques after voting in a poor neighbourhood of Caracas. "No one looked after us before." The vote comes only three months after regional and municipal elections in which the opposition gained ground. In their campaign opposition leaders focused on the importance of peaceful shifts in power to the health of Venezuela's democracy. They accused Chavez, who has led a nationalization drive in recent years, of abusing state resources to fund a massive "Yes" campaign. "We don't like Chavez, his people, or unlimited re-election," said Opposition supporter Rosi Gonzales after voting in eastern Caracas. "He's destroyed the country," Gonzales added. From Buenos Aires to Havana, many were watching the vote on the future of the Latin American leftist champion and traditional US foe. Venezuela expelled European Parliament deputy Luis Herrero late Friday after he called Chavez a "dictator" and slammed the electoral council for extending Sunday's voting to end at 6:00 pm (2230 GMT) instead of two hours earlier. Around 100 international observers have been accredited to observe the vote, but neither the Organization of American States (OAS) nor the European Union have official observers in Venezuela.

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