New Delhi: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lost Sunday's referendum vote by a whisker 51 per cent of voters. Opposition activists were ecstatic as the results were announced shortly after midnight with 88 per cent of the vote counted. The trend was declared irreversible by elections council chief Tibisay Lucena.
Opposed to the proposed reforms were student and business groups, opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church, former political allies and even Chavez's usually loyal ex-wife.
Opponents of the reform effort, including Roman Catholic leaders, media freedom groups, human rights groups and prominent business leaders, said it would have granted Chavez unchecked power and imperiled basic rights.
Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace that the outcome of Sunday's balloting had taught him that “Venezuelan democracy is maturing.” His respect for the verdict, he asserted, proves he is a true democratic leader.
Chavez, who was briefly ousted in a failed 2002 coup, blamed the loss on low turnout among the very supporters who re-elected him a year ago with 63 per cent of the vote.
Seven in 10 eligible voters cast ballots then. This time it was just 56 per cent.
The defeated reform package would have created new types of communal property, let Chavez handpick local leaders under a redrawn political map and suspended civil liberties during extended states of emergency. Without the overhaul, Chavez will be barred from running again in 2012.
Other changes would have shortened the workday from eight hours to six, created a social security fund for millions of informal laborers and promoted communal councils where residents decide how to spend government funds.
A close ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro, Chavez has redistributed more oil wealth than past Venezuelan leaders, and also has aided Latin American allies, including Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
(With inputs from AP)