CARACAS (Reuters) – President Hugo Chavez launched a new campaign on Monday to change Venezuela's constitution so he can stay in power for as long as he keeps winning elections, almost exactly a year after voters rejected the proposal.
The anti-U.S. socialist leader said he wanted to move quickly to revive the constitutional reforms he hopes will allow him to rule Venezuela for decades.
"Today, we begin the battle for the constitutional amendment," Chavez told cheering supporters. "If we are going to do it, let's do it quickly. If we are going to do it, there's no tomorrow, no, no, it's now, now."
He later said the amendment should be "ready" in February but did not say when it would be voted on.
"Chavez is here to stay," he yelled at party activists.
Last December, Chavez narrowly lost a broad constitutional reform referendum that would have lifted a two-term limit on presidential office, expanded his powers and enshrined socialism as a state goal.
His new drive comes just eight days after his party won most of the OPEC nation's states in regional elections, even though the opposition gained in big states and the capital of Caracas.
Chavez has survived a coup, a recall referendum and a national strike aimed at toppling him during a decade in office. After last year's defeat he vowed to try again. But resurrecting the plan with a new vote next year has risks.
The ex-paratrooper faces an opposition growing in strength and unity that won November 23 gubernatorial races in Venezuela's most populous states. He will also be asking for votes as the government's income falls due to falling world oil prices.
Without a law change, Chavez will leave office in 2013.
In his favor, the ally of Cuba and Iran has approval ratings up to 60 percent, a new political party that showed its powerful get-out-the-vote machinery last month, and his early launch of the campaign could catch the opposition off-guard.
Opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who Chavez has vowed to imprison for being a "mafia boss," said the referendum plan was "diabolical" because the president should focus on solving Venezuela's problems rather than advancing his personal ambitions.
"It is an insult to people that at this stage we are talking about a new electoral campaign when our society is battered by so many issues, especially the high cost of living and inflation," Rosales told Union Radio.
In the regional elections, Chavez's party won 80 percent of Venezuela's mayoralties and overall received about 1.5 million more votes than the multi-party opposition, encouraging him to try again to win the constitutional reforms.
A straight "yes" or "no" vote on scrapping term limits might also be easier for Chavez to win, compared with the complex raft of amendments in last year's referendum.
Chavez has come out on the offensive since the regional votes, calling opposition leaders fascists and demanding sanctions against Venezuela's last major critical TV network.
On Monday, he said his plan "could perfectly well be prepared in December and then in January -- boom, immediately starting the year." He did not clarify if the vote would be in January, but the process to organize a vote is expected to take months.
Chavez's party can request the constitutional amendment with signatures from 15 percent of registered voters, about 2.5 million people, or 30 percent of the votes of a Congress he controls. The electoral authority would have to call a referendum within 30 days of receiving a proposal and verifying the signatures.
"I really don't want to spend 2009 in a debate over whether Chavez is a tyrant, whether he's not a tyrant," the president said in reference to the sometimes violent and drawn-out campaigning for last year's failed reform bid.
The 2007 proposal included changes such as the creation of "social property" and a reduction of the working day.
Traditional opposition parties, splinter groups from Chavez's supporters and a student movement came together to successfully oppose the changes in the referendum.
"Chavez clearly feels that he should seize the moment before his approval ratings ... slip once more amid a slowing economy," Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with Eurasia group, said. "However, Chavez is taking a huge gamble."
(Additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez, Editing by Saul Hudson and Kieran Murray)