President Hugo Chavez said victory in a Sunday referendum that would abolish presidential term limits is key to his transformation of Venezuela into a socialist state, and shrugged off opposition claims that it would send the country on a dangerous path toward dictatorship.
"Ten years is nothing. I don't know what they're complaining about," he said at a news conference Saturday, referring to his time in office so far.
"Only here in Venezuela, that's a dictatorship," he added sarcastically, noting that Franklin Roosevelt was elected U.S. president four times before his death in 1945.
"El Comandante" says the proposed constitutional amendment to lift term limits for all elected officials would give him the time he needs to complete Venezuela's transition to socialism.
"On Monday I'll wake up looking beyond 2013, and that will give me more confidence in what we're doing ... and greatly diminish political uncertainties," he said.
Chavez's current term in office expires that year.
Last remaining restraint
Opponents say a Chavez victory would remove the last remaining check on his power. The Supreme Court and National Elections Council — both appointed by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly — have been packed with Chavez allies, they say, giving the socialist leader almost total control.
Chavez, first elected in 1998, has suggested he wants to govern Latin America's largest oil exporter for another decade — or longer, saying the constitutional change is key to his "Bolivarian revolution," a political movement named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
If voters reject the proposal, he warns, it will be hard to complete his plan to transform society through what he calls socialism. A defeat also would embolden Venezuela's opposition ahead of congressional elections next year.
Without a constitutional amendment, Chavez will have to leave office in 2013. He was defeated in a referendum in December 2007 that would have ended presidential term limits, and says nothing is stopping him from trying again if he loses this time around.
But analysts say time is not on his side. The plummeting price of oil, which accounts for 94 percent of Venezuela's exports and nearly half its federal budget, could force Chavez to scale back public spending, which would hurt his popularity, said Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan planning minister who teaches economics at Harvard University.
'Running at 150 miles per hour'
Indeed, Chavez's popularity is in large part due to the billions of dollars he has poured into social programs. He has not rolled back spending even as oil prices have dropped from a record $147 a barrel in July to about $38 a barrel today.
With a worldwide economic crisis under way, analysts doubt those prices will rebound anytime soon.
"Venezuela is a train running at 150 miles per hour. There's a wall on the tracks a few miles away and the driver still has his foot on the accelerator," Hausmann said. "Time is not on his side. That's why he was in such a hurry to have this vote."
More than 100 international observers have come to Venezuela for the referendum, including a conservative Spanish lawmaker who was deported Saturday.
Luis Herrero, a Popular Party member of the European parliament, had publicly suggested that a decision by Venezuela's elections council to keep polling stations open two hours longer than normal could open the way to fraud.
Spain called in Venezuela's ambassador for a meeting, but Chavez said the "lamentable incident, caused in an intentional manner by this disgraceful lawmaker, won't tarnish the excellent relations that we have with the Spanish government."