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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 02:51 GMT

World: Americas

Venezuela votes to extend presidency

Hugo Chavez: Could remain in power until 2011

By BBC Central America correspondent Peter Greste

Venezuela's constitutional assembly has voted to extend the presidential term, allowing the country's controversial leader, Hugo Chavez, to rule for up to 12 years.

The move has been praised by Mr Chavez's supporters, but is likely to antagonise critics who have labelled him as a populist demagogue.

The constitutional change is one President Hugo Chavez, who is less than 12 months into a five-year term, has wanted from the outset.

Under the current constitution, he cannot stand for re-election and would have to wait 10 years before being able to run again for the presidency.

But now the constitutional assembly, which is redrafting the national blueprint, has voted to extend the term to six years, with the option to run for immediate re-election.

From the moment the controversial leader attacked the existing constitution as moribund and blamed it for many of the country's ills, he has wanted just such an extension.

Ratification needed

His supporters say it gives him a chance to carry through the revolution he began almost as soon as he was sworn into office at the beginning of the year.

One assembly deputy said the change, and Commander Chavez's leadership, would consolidate this revolutionary movement.

His critics say it confirms their fears that the former military officer is little more than a thinly disguised demagogue, bent only on consolidating his own power.

The new clause is just one of many being discussed by the assembly and it will have to be ratified in a second debate, scheduled for December.

But the assembly is packed with Mr Chavez's political allies and few political observers doubt that the new political constitution with its amended presidential term will pass.

President Chavez is hugely popular, with polls consistently giving him between 70% and 80% support.

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