(Adds opposition leader, Chavez backers celebrate)
By Saul Hudson and Ana Isabel Martinez
CARACAS, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appeared headed for victory on Sunday in a referendum on allowing the leftist to rule for as long as he keeps winning elections, government-linked sources said, citing exit polls.
Three exit polls showed the anti-American leader won by between six and eight percentage points in a vote where turnout was low, the two sources said.
If his victory is confirmed, the referendum vote on a raft of reforms would allow Chavez — in office since 1999 — to run for reelection indefinitely, control foreign currency reserves, appoint loyalists over regional elected officials and censor the media if he declares an emergency.
Chavez has said he wants to rule for life and turn the major oil exporter into a socialist state.
The opposition was skeptical of the government sources’ exit poll data.
“According to our information, it is a statistical tie,” said Leopoldo Lopez, a popular mayor of a Caracas municipality. He did not give details of any exit polls, other than to say the difference was “two points up, two points down.”
Most pre-vote opinion surveys predicted a close vote on the package of constitutional changes that the opposition and even some former longtime allies say is authoritarian.
Pollsters had said a low turnout would favor Chavez, who activated a state-backed get-out-the-vote campaign against an underfunded, fragmented opposition.
The left-wing leader, a fierce critic of the United States and close ally of communist Cuba, has never lost a national vote and had predicted he would win by at least 10 points.
Even before any official results’ were announced, some of Chavez’s supporters began to celebrate.
Dressed in red and waving Venezuela’s red-blue-and-yellow national flag, they danced in the streets and drove cars and motorcycles around Caracas honking horns.
“The reform is very important for the country, we want to support our president,” said Marlene Vanegas, 70, who described herself as a “full-time revolutionary” and Chavez loyalist. “he was sent to us by God.”
The government-linked sources said two exit polls showed Chavez won 53 percent of the vote, compared with 47 percent for the “No” camp, and another showed 54 percent to 46 percent.
Led by a mix of political parties and university students, the opposition had pointed to some pre-referendum polls showing it could win.
It has lost to Chavez in almost yearly national votes and also failed to topple him with a coup in 2002, a national strike and a recall referendum.
Foreign investors worry that the opposition could contest the result if it suspects fraud, sparking political turbulence after a campaign marred by violent street clashes.
“(The vote) will deepen divisions and polarization,” said Jesus Ghersi, 25, an engineering student serving as an official poll watcher for the opposition.
Many Venezuelans believed the vote was a pivotal moment for the OPEC nation.
“We decide the future,” the El Nacional newspaper said in a headline that covered much of its front-page on Sunday.
Chavez wants the new constitution endorsed to give him a mandate to create a Cuba-inspired socialist state. After his landslide reelection a year ago, he decreed sweeping nationalizations, and promises more state intervention in the economy if he wins the referendum.
Opposition leaders complain his policies are a throwback to failed systems such as the Soviet Union and communist Cuba.
"If they approve this reform, as of midnight tonight we have turned into a communist country. I'm convinced of that," said Elias Martinez, 55, an actor. (For more on Venezuela's referendum, click here) (Additional reporting by Fabian Andres Cambero, Patricia Rondon and Jorge Silva, Writing by Saul Hudson; Editing by Kieran Murray)