CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelans vote next month in a referendum that would allow President Hugo Chavez to govern for as long as he wins elections, but he must convince a reluctant electorate to give him the chance.
Fierce U.S. critic Chavez has held office for a decade but says he needs years more to extend popular social reforms in the oil-exporting country. Under current rules he must leave in 2013 after serving his maximum of two six-year terms.
“I don’t want to stay in power; there is a democratic project and the people will decide who is going to govern,” he told reporters during a visit to a farm with Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Chavez, 54, often says his desire to stay in office is the will of the people, and that he’d rather retire to the country but that his movement needs him at the helm until 2019.
The National Electoral Council ruled on Friday that the referendum will be held on February 15. Voters will be asked whether they approve lifting term limits for Chavez as well as for governors and mayors.
Chavez is in a rush to hold the vote before the impact of lower oil prices is felt in the OPEC nation, which is releasing $12 billion of reserves to boost government finances.
Since taking office in 1999, Chavez’s combative political style, disrespect for institutions and attacks on old elites have won him many enemies but he has raised the living standard of many poor Venezuelans and still enjoys wide support.
Even so, Venezuelans have already blocked him in one attempt to lift a constitutional ban on unlimited re-election, voting against a package of political reforms in 2007.
A new loss could mean the end of Chavez’s “21st century socialist” project within four years, as he has no obvious successor within his movement to fight a resurgent opposition.
“Both the opposition and the government know that Chavez has better chances of winning than other candidates. That’s why the opposition doesn’t want him to run, and the government does,” said Venezuelan political scientist Edgardo Lander.
Opposition parties were emboldened by their 2007 victory, their first since Chavez took office in 1999, and after gains in local elections last year they hope to stop him again.
Polls conducted in December showed more than half of voters intended to oppose the rule change, with about 40 percent supporting the proposal.
But pollsters and observers predict the gap will narrow once campaigning starts in earnest on the weekend and the final vote will be very close.
Former soldier Chavez knows he has little time to convince undecided voters and has instead declared that “abstention is the enemy.” He will focus the short campaign on mobilizing his new Socialist Party in a major bring-out-the vote drive.
To motivate his supporters, Chavez often characterizes political opponents as “Yankee lapdogs” and “Fascists” who will slash spending on the health and welfare programs that blossomed as he presided over years of oil-fueled growth.
His reform agenda will probably be slowed this year by collapsing oil prices even if he wins a morale-boosting victory in February.
The last vote on Chavez’s re-election sparked a large student-led protest movement that was blighted by violent clashes with Chavez supporters.
The opposition has yet to launch a coordinated campaign against the referendum, but this week a group of students dressed in gas masks and wielding plastic shields blocked a highway and threw stones at riot police using tear gas.
Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero; Editing by Eric Walsh