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Key Vote Sunday for Venezuela's Chavez

Venezuelans go to the polls Sunday to vote for proposed changes in the constitution that would vastly expand the powers of President Hugo Chavez. If the referendum is approved, Mr. Chavez will be able to run for office indefinitely and his authority would be even further centralized. More from VOA's Bill Rodgers.

Those who will vote against the referendum... and those who support it... have taken to the streets in dueling demonstrations.

Many of the "No" rallies are led by students -- who object to proposed reforms giving President Chavez more power. "As that reform is such a violation of democracy we are fighting against it," says Jhon Goiceachea, a student leader

President Chavez won re-election just last year, but he wants to end presidential term limits so he can run for president indefinitely. His proposed constitutional overhaul also would greatly expand powers he already has, says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

"He has enormous power and he has control over all the key institutions, the electoral council, the judiciary, he has full support in the national assembly, the armed forces,” says Shifter. “One could ask why does he need this. And I think the answer is that he really does not want to leave any possibility of a potential challenge to his rule."

The proposed changes have sparked massive opposition rallies. And even some close allies of Mr. Chavez – including his former defense minister – have broken with him and urged a "No" vote on Sunday.

However, Chavez supporters – many of them poor – favor the amendments. Disenfranchised for decades, they have benefited from subsidized food and other government social programs during the nine years of Mr. Chavez's rule, financed by the country's massive oil wealth.

Voting “Yes” will continue those programs and deepen socialism, says Venezuelan ambassador to Washington Bernardo Alvarez. "We believe that allowing indefinite re-election will strengthen our country's leadership to consolidate the process. Achieving stronger political leadership is a goal in any government, right or left."

The outcome of Sunday's vote is unclear -- although opinion polls show the referendum may pass by a narrow margin. Again, Michael Shifter. "Even people who in the end may vote for Chavez and vote for the reforms are not comfortable with indefinite re-election. But they feel grateful to Chavez, they feel loyal to Chavez and they feel that even if they disagree with these kind of new ideas they don't want to betray him."

Venezuelans are being urged to vote – the U.S. State Department says Venezuelans should be allowed to exercise their rights in a climate free from intimidation.