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Author`s name Alex Naumov

Chavez faces tough vote to pass new Constitution

“If we lose Sunday elections, the Bolivarian Revolution could freeze”, the Venezuelan leader warned during the campaign.

The Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, faces on Sunday the toughest vote in eight years in power. According to all opinion polls, people’s support to his new Constitution slips, as dissidence grows among his former allies, making almost impossible to forecast a result on the referendum.

Opposition to Chavez’s backed Constitutional reform has grown lately as scraps term limits on his rule, which is seen by his foes as an attempt to become a “dictator”. Supporters say the new constitution gives more power to the population and will drive this oil-rich South American nation toward socialism, social justice and independence from world’s powers.

Recent polls show a decline in support for the reforms, with one giving the "No" vote a 10 percentage point lead and another describing a technical tie in a reverse of previous surveys that had showed Chavez winning easily. The reform would remove limits on presidential re-election, give Chavez direct control over foreign currency reserves, expand the government's power to expropriate private property and allow for media censorship during political emergencies. It also includes measures to reduce the workday to six hours and expand social security benefits to the informal sector workers such as taxi drivers and street vendors.

Former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, who helped rescue Chavez from a botched 2002 putsch, dealt a strong blow to his reform campaign by calling it a "coup," and the second largest party of the president's coalition broke ranks and criticized the proposals. The Roman Catholic Church and rights groups have condemned the proposals as authoritarian.

In turn, Chavez said opposition groups may boycott the referendum. The president urged citizens to remain ``alert'' in the days leading to the Dec. 2 ballot and reiterated that the nation's armed forces are ready to quell civil disobedience. ``The state is ready to respond,'' Chavez told a group of supporters today at a rally in the town of Cordero, in Tachira state.

A defeat in Sunday's vote would slow the advance of a firebrand leader who has become one of the world's staunchest critics of Washington and has nationalized some foreign-owned oil assets in a self-described socialist revolution inspired by his closest ally, Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In a rally last week in Caracas, Chavez made it clear: “If we lose the referendum, the Bolivarian Revolution will freeze”, he addressed the crowd.

All this week, rallies filled the streets of Caracas and most of the country’s cities, as Chavez and the opposition campaigned for “Yes” or “No” to the new Constitution, which was written by Chavez’s collaborators and approved by the National Congress.

A man was shot dead on Monday as he tried to drive his truck through an area blocked by demonstrators protesting the constitutional reform proposals, the military said. It was the first death of a sometimes violent referendum campaign.

Earlier this month, students became part of massive demonstrations on either one of each sides, which sometimes finished in violent clashes with the police. Students led the toughest protests against Chavez, making many skeptic Venezuelan to reconsider their decision to abstain from voting on Sunday.

The President’s recent problems in the diplomatic field also encouraged opposition leaders to fight Chavez’s proposals. the build up to the vote, Chavez has intensified diplomatic rows, calling Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a "liar" and freezing relations with Spain until King Juan Carlos apologizes for telling him to "shut up" at a recent summit.

Opposition groups even designed t-shirts reading “Shut up” to caricaturize Chavez, who frequently speaks for over four or five hours in public rallies or on TV.

Both Chavez and the opposition that Sunday elections will be key for the future of the country. If the “No” wins, it will represent a serious blow to Chavez self-proclaimed Socialist Revolution. If the opposition is again defeated they should prepare to see Chavez in power for a long time.

Hernan Etchaleco

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