(CNSNews.com) - Venezuela's voters have narrowly rejected President Hugo Chavez's attempts to amend the constitution and do away with presidential term limits. The results of Sunday's vote deal a severe blow to his plans to transform the oil-rich country into a model of Cuba-inspired "21st century socialism."
The National Electoral Council (CNE) early Monday said around 51 percent of the nine million voters opposed the constitutional changes, while approximately 49 percent supported them.
Chavez told supporters not to be saddened at the result, saying the referendum showed that Venezuela's democracy was maturing.
The reaction was in sharp contrast to his earlier fiery rhetoric. The El Universal newspaper quoted Chavez as telling supporters gathered in Caracas before the vote, "Those who vote no are doing a favor to George W. Bush. Our real opponent, our real enemy is the U.S. Empire ... We are going to deal another knockout blow to the American imperialism. Nobody should forget that it is the backdrop of the battle."
The outcome marked the first major electoral defeat for Chavez in nine years. He won elections in 1998, re-election in 2000 and 2006, and referendums in 1999 (on a new constitution) and 2000 (on trade union reform). In a 2004 plebiscite he defeated an attempt to recall him as president.
Among the 69 proposed changes to the constitution, the most controversial included one that would have enabled Chavez to stay in power indefinitely, as long as he continued to win elections every seven years (presidential terms would also be increased from six to seven years.)
He also sought to end the autonomy of the Central Bank, and he wanted the authority to impose censorship during national emergencies, lower the voting age to 16 and shorten the working day to six hours.
The amendments were grouped into two proposals. The first comprised 33 changes and failed by 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent. The second block of 36 changes was rejected by 51 percent to 48.9 percent, according to results posted on the CNE website.
Students and the Catholic Church led the opposition to the proposed amendments. Some high-profile former Chavez allies also parted ways with the president.
Chavez-Church Clash Raises Questions About Influence of Liberation Theology (Nov. 21, 2007)
Don't Abstain, Vote 'No,' Chavez Opponents Urged (Nov. 16, 2007)
Clashes in Venezuela Over Controversial Constitutional Changes (Oct. 24, 2007)
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