Dec 3, 2008

World - Venezuela;Chavez plans February referendum

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says he expects a referendum in February on a constitutional amendment which would let him seek indefinite re-election.

Mr Chavez, who announced his intention to run again over the weekend, has said he hopes to remain in power until 2021.

He narrowly lost a referendum on the issue last December, and under the present rules must stand down in 2013.

The announcement comes a week after his United Socialist Party ceded ground to the opposition in regional elections.

The opposition won control of five states in the polls, including the two most populous, and won the mayoral election in Caracas. Mr Chavez's supporters nevertheless retained 17 of the country's 22 governorships.

Double jeopardy

In a televised speech on Tuesday, Mr Chavez said he expected Venezuelans to vote in early next year on the constitutional changes necessary to allow the president to stand for indefinite re-election.

"At the end of February, I think we should be ready for the referendum," he said.

Mr Chavez can propose holding a referendum to the electoral authority only if he collects 2.5 million signatures supporting it, or if the request is supported by 30% of Congress, which is currently dominated by his allies.

The electoral authority is required to call a referendum 30 days after receiving a successful proposal. Mr Chavez did not say which method he would use.

Mr Chavez unveiled his plans for a referendum on Sunday.

"I am ready, and if I am healthy, God willing, I will be with you until 2019, until 2021," he told thousands of supporters at a rally in Caracas.

The opposition says it will attempt to block a referendum on indefinite re-election by arguing that the same issue cannot be put to a referendum twice.

However, the president's supporters argue that when he lost the referendum last year, people were voting on a whole series of constitutional reforms.

The BBC's Will Grant in Caracas says it is far from clear whether Mr Chavez would win.

Although his personal support is still over 50%, the opposition has been buoyed by its recent performances at the ballot box, our correspondent says.

Any vote on this question is therefore likely to be as close as the last, in which a few thousand votes separated each side, he adds.

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