CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez won a referendum to eliminate term limits Sunday, enabling him to run again in 2012 and beyond in what critics fear is an attempt to become president-for-life.
Fireworks exploded in the sky and caravans of supporters celebrated in the streets, waving red flags and honking horns. Thousands of people gathered outside Miraflores Palace, where the former paratroop commander appeared on a balcony to sing the national anthem and address the crowd.
"Today we opened wide the gates of the future," proclaimed Chávez, who has governed for a decade and vowed to rule for at least a decade more. "In 2012 there will be presidential elections, and unless God decides otherwise, unless the people decide otherwise, this soldier is already a candidate."
Chávez called the victory — which allows all public officials to run for re-election as many times as they want — a mandate to speed his transformation of Venezuela into a socialist state.
"Those who voted 'yes' today voted for socialism, for revolution," he said.
With 94 percent of the vote counted, 54 percent voted for the constitutional amendment, National Electoral Council chief Tibisay Lucena said. Forty-six percent voted against it, a trend she called irreversible. She said turnout was 67 percent.
At their campaign headquarters, Chávez opponents who say the amendment pushes Venezuela closer to dictatorship hugged one another, and some cried. Several opposition leaders left without speaking, but several who remained said they wouldn't contest the vote.
"We accept this result," said student leader David Smolansky, 23. "We're still standing. We're committed to Venezuela."
Voters on both sides said the referendum was crucial to the future of Venezuela, a deeply polarized country where Chávez has spent a tumultuous decade in power channeling tremendous oil wealth into combating gaping social inequality.
Venezuela's leftist allies in Latin America have followed the model. Ecuador pushed through a new constitution in September and Bolivia did so in January. Both loosened rules on presidential re-election. Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas also plan to propose an amendment that would let Daniel Ortega run for another consecutive term.
Opponents say Chávez already has far too much power, with the courts, the legislature and the election council all under his influence. Removing the current 12-year presidential term limit, they say, makes him unstoppable.
"Effectively this will become a dictatorship," opposition leader Omar Barboza said. "It's control of all the powers, lack of separation of powers, unscrupulous use of state resources, persecution of adversaries."
Chávez supporters say their president has given poor Venezuelans cheap food, free education and quality health care, and empowered them with a discourse of class struggle after decades of U.S.-backed governments that favored the rich.