CARACAS Venezuela's leading opposition politician on Thursday attacked President Hugo Chavez's bid to scrap presidential term limits as an attempted coup and a sign of "puerile egomania."
Chavez proposed a raft of legal changes on Wednesday that increase the presidential term from six to seven years, end limits on re-election and strengthen the state's expropriation powers as he consolidates his hold over the OPEC nation. The changes would have to be approved by a popular referendum.
Critics of the Venezuelan leader say he has steadily edged his oil-producing nation to a dictatorship but, through use of petroleum dollars, Chavez has secured strong support among the poor majority with free health and education projects.
"This is an attempted coup because it weakens the republic," said former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, who lost to Chavez when the president won a landslide re-election last year.
"And he's doing this amid his narcissistic illness, his personal ambition ... his puerile egomania."
Justice First opposition party leader Julio Borges dismissed Chavez's reforms as a thinly veiled attempt to advance his "continuous re-election, re-election for life, permanent re-election."
Under the current constitution, Chavez is in his second and final term and could not be elected again after it ends in 2012. The reform proposal would allow him to stay as long as he keeps winning elections.
Opposition leaders and U.S. officials frequently accuse Chavez, an anti-U.S. leader with close ties to Cuba's Fidel Castro, of concentrating power and controlling institutions, such as the central bank and oil company PDVSA.
But his oil-financed anti-poverty crusade has built up his support among the poor majority that has consistently backed him at the polls since his first election in 1998.
Chavez beat out a recall referendum in 2004 and maintains strong popularity in the polls due to a multi-billion-dollar social development crusade that has boosted access to education and health care among the nation's poorest sectors.
Analysts expect Chavez's proposed constitutional changes will easily be approved in a referendum.
The fractured opposition has been widely discredited, particularly after a bungled coup in 2002 and massive oil strike later that year that nearly shuttered the vital petroleum industry.
Chavez already holds a firm grip over state institutions, including the legislature -- where supporters control 100 percent of seats -- courts and state and municipal governments expect for a few where opposition candidates won posts.
This year he won approval to legislate by decree without seeking the approval of the legislature.
"A constitutional reform is not what's needed here," Rosales said. "What people are demanding is that the current constitution be upheld. What the people are demanding is a solution to their problems."
(Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero in Caracas)