CARACAS (Reuters) - More than 100,000 Venezuelans held a rally on Thursday in the opposition’s biggest show of force before a tight vote on whether President Hugo Chavez will be allowed to run for reelection as long as he lives.
A sea of “No” voters surged across the capital Caracas into a central square, vowing to stop Chavez from winning more power in a referendum on Sunday in a polarized nation that already has few checks on its leftist firebrand president.
A student movement that rose up in May when Chavez shut a television station has led an outcry against reforms that the opposition political parties, the Roman Catholic church and human rights groups denounce as authoritarian.
“We are winning back democracy,” Freddy Guevara, a student leader wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with “No,” shouted from a podium at the rally. “There is no doubt that if everybody goes to vote, we will win.”
The crowd waved Venezuela’s red-blue-and-yellow flag and chanted “No, no, no” against a constitutional overhaul that also enshrines socialism as a state priority.
Chavez usually coasts to victory against a fragmented opposition. But polls this time show the anti-U.S. president and Cuba ally in the toughest campaign of his career.
Most surveys show a statistical tie between the “Yes” an “No” camps, although Chavez may have an advantage because he can activate the disciplined, state-backed get-out-the-vote machinery that has overwhelmed the opposition in the past.
The man who ends his hours-long speeches with a cry of “homeland, socialism or death,” is popular among the poor in city shantytowns and rural villages for spending the OPEC nation’s oil revenue on schools and food subsidies.
But former allies have split with the self-styled revolutionary over a constitutional overhaul that would also allow him to censor the media and detain people without charges if he declares an “emergency.”
“This is not a case of toppling Chavez,” said Stalin Gonzalez, another student leader said at a news conference before the rally. “What we want is that he rules differently: for all Venezuelans.”