Venezuelans approve proposal to rewrite constitution

Chavez calls process a key to `peaceful revolution'


CARACAS, Venezuela -- Voters handed President Hugo Chavez the central weapon of his touted "peaceful revolution" yesterday, agreeing to call a national assembly to rewrite Venezuela's constitution.

"I want to celebrate together with all Venezuelans a process of change, peaceful revolution," a smiling Chavez, 44, said last night. He also insisted that if the Supreme Court or Congress stands in the way, both could be dismissed.

While the president has said little about the goals of the constitutional assembly, his backers say its key aims will be to reduce the power of Venezuela's largely discredited political parties and revamp the election system, in part to ensure Chavez can run for re-election.

Opponents, however, say yesterday's vote opens a Pandora's box that could lead to the dissolution of Congress, the disbanding of the Supreme Court, and an authoritarian restructuring of Venezuela's 40-year-old democracy that could include a broader role for the military.

"People are rushing forward with their eyes closed," charged Antonio Bastida, 44, a lawyer who voted no in yesterday's referendum. "Chavez has insisted he's going to dissolve Congress. All this is just theater. Democracy is a costume he's using."

At the heart of the populist president's plan is a constitutional assembly that he asserts will have the power to dissolve the current Congress and Supreme Court, as well as write a new constitution.

Yesterday's vote to create a constitutional assembly -- 131 delegates will be chosen in a separate election June 27 and likely start work on July 5 -- lays the groundwork for a bitter battle between the president and the Supreme Court, which has insisted the assembly has no power to replace Congress.

Yesterday's referendum passed with 92 percent approval.

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