chavez salutes 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Venezuelans were deciding whether to cast off term limits on President Hugo Chavez - and all other elected officials - on Sunday in a tightly fought referendum.
Critics say removing term limits would distort democracy by enabling a president to stay in power for decades, while Chavez - first elected in 1998 - said the proposed constitutional amendment would deepen democracy by giving voters more choice. He pointed out that Franklin Roosevelt was elected US president four times.
"Ten years is nothing. I don't know what they're complaining about," he said Saturday.
Venezuelans were awakened early in the morning by recorded bugles blasted from speakers and long lines formed as the polls opened at 6 a.m. and National Electoral Council official German Yepez said the vote was progressing normally.
Pre-election polls show the race is tight, and those waiting to cast their ballots said the future of their country is at stake.
Yira Guerra, 52, said that thanks to Chavez, her two children have access to free higher education.
"My son has obtained a bachelor's degree," Guerra said proudly, adding that she fears such advances will be stemmed under another leader.
Others say allowing Chavez to extend his time in office even if he has to win repeated elections is dangerous.
"We don't want anybody to stay perpetually in power," said Carmen Gilarte, a 50-year old mother of three who complained of government corruption and rampant crime.
"We have to give opportunities to the next generation," she said.
Without a constitutional amendment, Chavez will have to leave office in 2013. He lost a broader referendum in December 2007 that also sought to abolish presidential term limits, and says nothing is stopping him from trying again if he loses this time.
Chavez says he needs the amendment to seek re-election in 2012 and complete Venezuela's transition to socialism.
"It's a little change in the constitution. But the fact that it's little doesn't mean it won't have great repercussions in Venezuela and beyond," Chavez said.
Supporters of a "no" vote say a Chavez victory would remove the last remaining check on the president's power. Since the opposition boycotted the 2005 congressional elections, the Chavez-dominated National Assembly has packed The Supreme Court and National Electoral Council with Chavez allies, they say - giving the socialist leader almost total control.
A "no" vote could embolden the opposition ahead of next year's congressional vote.