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Venezuela vote 'too close to call'
Vice-president pledges to respect result on referendum over constitutional changes.
Last Modified: 03 Dec 2007 04:19 GMT

Chavez says the constitutional changes are vital
to his '21st century socialism' [AFP]

Venezuela's government has said that a referendum over changes to the country's constitution, is too close to call.
 
"The result of the referendum is close," Jorge Rodriguez, the vice-president, said on Sunday.
 
"We will respect the result, whatever it is - even if it's by one single vote."
Two government-linked sources, citing exit polls, said Hugo Chavez, the president behind the constitutional changes, had won.
 
Three exit polls showed Chavez won by between six and eight points in a vote where turnout was low, they told Reuters news agency.
But Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, told The Associated Press that election monitors and results the opposition had seen "indicate the 'no' vote is going to win". 
 
Most pre-vote opinion surveys predicted a close referendum on the raft of constitutional changes, which include allowing Chavez to contest for the presidency indefinitely.
 
Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Caracas, reported the vote was close and that riot police had been deployed incase of any dispute over the result.
 
"The longer the results are delayed the more nervousness there is out on the streets," she said.
 
"We understand there are large crowds gathering outside opposition headquarters - that people there are convinced they have won this political battle. And on the government side of course there is the same feeling.
 
"If there is a very close finish neither side is likely to acknowledge defeat easily, even if the president has said himself that he will respect the result his supporters and the supporters of the opposition, if it is a close, will want to dispute the results."
 
Newman said the reason the vote was so close was "not becuase the traditional opposition to Hugo Chavez has grown, but rather because a lot of his traditional supporters have decided they don't want to go with him so far so fast".
 
Emboldened opposition
 
The opposition and even some former allies Chavez's proposed changes are authoritarian.
 

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"Chavez is a very popular president still and he is counting on his own personal appeal to get the vote out in his favour"

Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera

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An emboldened opposition and recent violent clashes during street protests have created fears of a potentially volatile dispute.
 
Chavez has warned opponents he will not tolerate attempts to stir up violence, and threatened to cut off all oil exports if the US interferes in the referendum.
 
The head of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, officially confirmed the closure of the poll at 4pm (20:00 GMT) but said centres that still had lines of voters would continue to process their ballots.
 
She said: "Once again, Venezuela has shown the world that we are a democratic, civil and peaceful country, and we resolve our differences through democracy."
 
Chavez has said the changes are vital for his plans for "21st century socialism", and labelled those who resist it pawns of George Bush, the US president.
 
'Unchecked power'
 
Opponents, including Roman Catholic leaders, press freedom groups, human-rights groups and prominent business leaders, fear the changes would grant Chavez unchecked power and threaten basic rights.

At the very least, they would grant Chavez direct control over the central bank, allow his government to detain citizens without charge during a state of emergency, and empower the president to redraw the country's political map and handpick provincial and municipal leaders.

Other proposed changes - such as shortening the workday from eight hours to six, creating a social security fund for millions of informal labourers and promoting communal councils where residents decide how to spend government funds - have been welcomed by supporters.

'Close' vote

While the government has touted polls showing Chavez ahead, other surveys cited by the opposition have indicated strong resistance, which would present a challenge for a leader who won re-election last year with 63 per cent of the vote.

Constitutional changes

A Chavez victory would mean:

 

Two-term presidential limit abolished to allow him to keep contesting polls

 

He takes control of country's erstwhile autonomous central bank

 

Work day cut from eight hours to six

 

Voting age lowered from 18 to 16

 

Social security benefits extended to informal workers

Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster, said tracking polls by his firm Datanalisis in the past week show the vote is too close to predict.

Which side wins will depend largely on turnout among Chavez's supporters and opponents, he said.

"If he wins by a very small margin, that's a scenario filled with conflict," Leon said.

"In a country where there are high levels of mistrust between the camps, it's obvious the opposition ... would think it was fraud."

The opposition has called for close monitoring of the results, raising tensions before a vote on changes that would extend presidential terms from six to seven years, create new forms of communal property, and let Chavez seek re-election in 2012 and beyond.

About 100 electoral observers from 39 countries in Latin America, Europe and the US are on hand, plus hundreds of Venezuelan observers, the National Electoral Council said.

Chavez has accused his opponents of plotting to discredit the legitimate results of what he says will be a "knockout" at the polls, saying his enemies enjoy support from Washington.

Manuel Rosales, a Venezuelan opposition leader and the governor of Zulia state, recalled before a crowd of supporters on Friday night that he conceded defeat in the 2006 presidential race and urged Chavez to do the same and "recognise the will of the people".

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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