Benedict Mander, Caracas
Venezuelans have given Hugo Chavez’s ”Bolivarian revolution” fresh impetus after voting in favour of a referendum that will allow the socialist leader to continue running for president indefinitely.
”The gates to the future have been opened wide,” said an emotional Mr Chavez from the balcony of the presidential palace, as a throng of ecstatic followers chanted in unison, ”Hey, ho, Chavez won’t go”.
With 54 per cent of Venezuelans voting in favour of abolishing term limits for elected officials – representing a wider margin of victory than expected – Mr Chavez announced he would stand for re-election when his current six-year term expires in January 2013.
”Today you have written my political destiny, which is the same as my life’s destiny,” said Mr Chavez, announcing a new phase in his revolution from 2009 to 2019, having completed the phase that began when he first assumed power in 1999.
The victory will re-ignite Mr Chavez’s resolve to bring ”21st century socialism” to Venezuela, less than three months after suffering a setback when a resurgent opposition won key urban centres in regional elections.
Indeed, the result represented a serious blow to Venezuela’s fragmented opposition, after little more than a year ago having succeeded in blocking Mr Chavez’s attempted overhaul of the constitution, which included scrapping presidential term limits.
”This was the campaign in which David stood up to Goliath, but Goliath won,” said Leopoldo Lopez, a leader of the opposition, which was fiercely critical of the government’s abuse of state resources in an aggressive propaganda campaign.
Cuba’s ex-president Fidel Castro, who Mr Chavez describes as his mentor, was quick to congratulate the result, saying ”its importance was impossible to measure”.
In what was the fifteenth nationwide vote since Mr Chavez was first elected a decade ago, an unusually high 67 per cent of Venezuela’s 16.8m registered voters went to the polls, according to results after 94 per cent of the vote had been counted.
With fireworks exploding into the late night sky, Mr Chavez pledged to elated supporters that the government would redouble its efforts to tackle persistent problems that have dented his popularity, such as violent crime, corruption, waste and bureaucracy.
But analysts also suggested that the comfortable victory will also embolden the government to confront serious economic challenges caused by a collapse in oil revenues.
Economists at Barclays suggest the government will soon implement a financial transaction tax, increase the value added tax rate, and cut expensive subsidies on domestic petrol prices, which are some of the cheapest in the world.
A devaluation of some 37 per cent could soon take place, argues Barclays, now that the currency has become heavily misaligned after almost four years at a fixed exchange rate at the same time as double digit inflation.
How soon economic adjustments come is uncertain, although analysts expect painful changes to be made well before legislative elections in December 2010.