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Close Vote On Venezuela Constitutional Referendum

Close Vote on Venezuela's Constitutional Referendum Leaves Outcome Uncertain

Hours after polls closed in Venezuela's constitutional referendum Sunday, both the government and its opponents say the vote is too close to call.

No official results have been released on the fate of the constitutional changes sought by President Hugo Chavez.

Late Sunday, Vice President Jorge Rodriguez said election workers were still counting ballots five hours after voting was to have ended.

A "yes" vote would increase President Hugo Chavez's powers and support his goal of making Venezuela a socialist state.

Speaking to reporters after he voted earlier in the day, Mr. Chavez said he will accept the results, whichever way the vote goes.

Among the proposed changes to the constitution is an end to term limits on the presidency. If voters approve, the Venezuelan leader says, he is prepared to stay in power until 2050, when he would be 95- years-old.

The changes would grant the government sweeping new powers in case the president declares a national emergency. They also would reduce the workday in Venezuela from eight hours to six hours, and extend social benefits to more workers.

Thousands of people staged demonstrations in Caracas last week, both for and against Mr. Chavez's proposals.

After several public-opinion surveys reported public sentiment was tipping away from the president, Mr. Chavez raised the possibility last week that the United States could interfere with the election. Officials in Washington repudiated his comments, but Mr. Chavez followed up by threatening to cut off oil shipments to the United States if he saw evidence of any interference.

A prominent member of the U.S. Senate, Carl Levin, also rejected Mr. Chavez's allegations. The American lawmaker said Sunday that the United States is not seeking to destabilize Venezuela.

In response to warnings by opposition parties, human-rights groups and Venezuela's Roman Catholic leaders that passage of the referendum would amount to an unprecedented concentration of power in the president's hands, Mr. Chavez has argued that it is necessary to revise the constitution to strengthen the people's voice in government.


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