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Sunday, July 25, 1999 Published at 22:49 GMT 23:49 UK

World: Americas

Venezuelans back Chavez

Supporters of President Chavez celebrate in his trademark red beret

Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez have won an overwhelming majority of seats in the country's new Constitutional Assembly.

The BBC's Peter Greste: "Most voters wanted change"
Results released shortly after the polls closed showed that candidates from his Patriotic Pole coalition won 75% of the seats in the assembly.

It now has six months to write a new constitution.

Mr Chavaz's critics are warning that the election result concentrates too much power in his hands.

They say the former paratrooper will use it to enshrine a military dictatorship.

But his supporters have hailed the result as a political and moral victory for a president bent on transforming the country.

Radical role

[ image: Mr Chavez and his wife wave to supporters outside the presidential palace]
Mr Chavez and his wife wave to supporters outside the presidential palace
The assembly, which is charged with rewriting the country's constitution, is intended to be the centrepiece of Mr Chavez's attempt to change what he has described as a corrupt and inefficient political system.

He has said its first job should be to sack the country's Congress and Supreme Court and assume the powers of both.

The BBC's Peter Greste: "A massive vote of support for Mr Chavez"
Shortly after casting his own vote early on Sunday, he said that if the assembly wanted him to quit as president, he would be prepared to go.

Low turn-out

[ image: Mr Chavez says the assembly will rid the country of corruption and inefficiency]
Mr Chavez says the assembly will rid the country of corruption and inefficiency
In last December's presidential election, people turned out in droves to vote for Mr Chavez, but turnout on Sunday was low.

Some 11 million of Venezuela's 23 million people were eligible to vote for the 1,171 candidates.

They included Mr Chavez's wife, his brother, 20 ex-military officers and five cabinet ministers.

In a televised address on the eve of the vote, the president said: "Our immense responsibility is nothing more and nothing less than to re-found the republic. The future of an entire people is at stake."

[ image: Venezuela's old institutions have mired the country in poverty, Mr Chavez argues]
Venezuela's old institutions have mired the country in poverty, Mr Chavez argues
Mr Chavez won a landslide victory in December, pledging to rule in favour of the poverty-stricken masses.

He has made constitutional reform the central plank of his political programme.

He proposed the new body to loosen the grip of traditional parties that he says have impoverished Venezuela, squandering its vast oil wealth and turning it into one of the world's most corrupt countries.

"There is no doubt that what is happening is an awakening of the people who for a long time have suffered in silence as they were being abused, raped and tarnished," he declared.

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