CARACAS, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition accused President Hugo Chavez on Friday of spending government money and clamping down on protests in the campaign to extend his rule for at least another decade.
Chavez visited poor city slums on Friday, the last day of campaigning before Venezuelans vote in a referendum on lifting a two-term limit on presidents and other politicians.
Victory in Sunday’s vote would allow Chavez to stay in power for as long as he keeps winning elections. Polls give the socialist president a slight lead after several weeks of intense campaigning that opposition parties and anti-government students say has been distorted by abuses of power.
Trucks from state-oil company PDVSA have been used in the campaign and public workers frequently complain in private they are obliged to take part in Chavez’s rallies.
Opposition parties say the National Electoral Council has dragged it’s feet to approve campaign advertisements and say they were denied permits for several marches.
“It’s total abuse,” student leader Bernardo Pulido told foreign journalists on Friday. “They have refused us eight permits.”
An opposition march planned for Friday was canceled because it did not receive the necessary paperwork.
Popular for high social spending, Chavez was for years unbeatable at the ballot box but he lost his previous bid to remove term limits in 2007. The opposition made gains in state and city elections last year and Chavez could lose on Sunday if turnout is low or undecided voters swing away from him.
During the referendum campaign, Chavez has frequently commandeered Venezuela’s television and radio frequencies to broadcast long speeches about his achievements, blocking other programs.
Despite their complaints, opposition leaders on Friday urged supporters to vote and said they would have witnesses at every polling station to check the count.
“Our organization is ready to keep watch,” said Enrique Marquez, the vice-president of leading opposition party Un Nuevo Tiempo. “We are not worried about defending the vote.”
Venezuela is one of the oldest democracies in Latin America and observers say fraud at the ballot box is rare.
If he loses, Chavez should step down when his term ends in 2013. Most analysts believe he would try again to change the rules, but future bids will be made more difficult by the dark economic outlook for the OPEC-member nation given the slump in international oil prices.
Alberto Muller Rojas, a top official in Chavez’s Socialist Party, recently said there were no laws that prohibited the use of state resources in the referendum campaign.
Widespread student protests helped defeat a 2007 referendum bid to allow Chavez’s re-election and this time he has kept a lid on them, ordering police to use tear gas at the first sign of trouble.
Several policemen and students have been injured in clashes outside universities in recent weeks and radical groups that back Chavez threw tear gas grenades at a television station critical of the government.
But, apparently confident he will win on Sunday, Chavez has recently cooled his rhetoric against the opposition and called for calm as campaigning came to a close. He also ordered the arrest of the leader of one group that threatened to kill the owner of the television station, Globovision.
Venezuela’s opposition struggled to get back on its feet after Chavez first won office in 1998. For many years his opponents boycotted elections and supported a coup against him which backfired, only increasing his support. (Reporting by Patricia Rondon; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Kieran Murray)
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