CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Humbled by his first electoral defeat ever, President Hugo Chavez said Monday he may have been too ambitious in asking voters to let him stand indefinitely for re-election and endorse a huge leap to a socialist state.
“I understand and accept that the proposal I made was quite profound and intense,” he said after voters narrowly rejected the sweeping constitutional reforms by 51 percent to 49 percent.
Opposition activists were ecstatic as the results were announced shortly after midnight – with 88 percent of the vote counted, the trend was declared irreversible by elections council chief Tibisay Lucena.
Some shed tears. Others began chanting, “And now he’s going away!”
Without the overhaul, Chavez will be barred from running again in 2012.
Foes of the reform effort – including Roman Catholic leaders, media freedom groups, human rights groups and prominent business leaders – said it would have granted Chavez unchecked power and imperiled basic rights.
Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace that the outcome of Sunday’s balloting had taught him that “Venezuelan democracy is maturing.” His respect for the verdict, he said, proves he is a true democratic leader.
“From this moment on, let’s be calm,” he proposed, asking for no more street violence like the clashes that marred pre-vote protests. “There is no dictatorship here.”
The White House took note of Chavez’s setback.
“We congratulate the people of Venezuela on their election and their continued desire to live in freedom and democracy,” Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman, said.
Nicholas Burns, U.S. Undersecretary of State, also said it was a victory for the country’s citizens who want to prevent Chavez from having unchecked power.
“We felt that this referendum would make Chavez president for life, and that’s not ever a welcome development,” Burns told reporters in Singapore. “In a country that wants to be a democracy, the people spoke, and the people spoke for democracy and against unlimited power.”
Chavez, who was briefly ousted in a failed 2002 coup, blamed the loss on low turnout among the very supporters who re-elected him a year ago with 63 percent of the vote.
Seven in 10 eligible voters cast ballots then. This time 56 percent did.
The defeated reform package would have created new types of communal property, suspended civil liberties during extended states of emergency and let Chavez handpick local leaders under a redrawn political map and suspended civil liberties during extended states of emergency.
Other changes would have shortened the workday from eight hours to six, created a social security fund for millions of informal laborers and promoted communal councils where residents decide how to spend government funds.
A close ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Chavez has redistributed more oil wealth than past Venezuelan leaders, and has also aided Latin American allies – including Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua – that have followed Venezuela’s turn to the left.
Tensions surged in the weeks ahead of Sunday’s vote, with university students leading protests and occasionally clashing with police and Chavista groups.
Chavez had warned opponents against inciting violence before the vote, and threatened to cut off oil exports to the United States if the Bush administration interfered.