Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez promised to use a referendum victory that allows his re-election to fight crime and corruption and consolidate socialism in a nation whose oil income has fallen abruptly.
With the global economic crisis overshadowing his larger-than-expected win on Sunday, the anti-U.S. Chavez told his mainly poor supporters that the government would have to wait until next year before launching any new initiatives.
Popular for spending freely on clinics, schools and food hand-outs in city slums and remote villages, Chavez has been in power for 10 years and the referendum vote helps clear the way for him to fulfill his declared goal of ruling for decades.
But the self-styled revolutionary veered from his typical victory speech script of vowing to accelerate his moves to control the economy and to fight U.S. influence in the region.
Instead, the Cuba and Iran ally promised to combat crime and corruption, which have weighed on his popularity in recent years, and said his priority was consolidation.
If we reinforce what we have already done, then starting next year, we will be in a much better position to open new horizons, he told flag-waving, red-clad supporters from his palace balcony.
Electoral authorities said 54 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment to remove limits on re-election and allow Chavez to stay in office until he is defeated at the ballot box. His current term ends in 2013.
The defeat was a huge blow for the fragmented opposition, which had made some gains in recent years but was left to complain that Chavez unfairly uses state revenue to finance his campaigns with huge rallies and constant TV appearances.
Today, Goliath won, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said.
The opposition says Chavez, 54, is an autocrat bent on turning Venezuela into a replica of communist Cuba, and it tried to capture discontent over violent crime, economic mismanagement and corruption.
But the government campaigned hard. An ex-paratrooper who once led a failed coup before winning power at the ballot box, Chavez has survived a putsch and two national strikes against his rule and has the loyalty of many poor Venezuelans.
Chavez won the right to stand again at his second attempt. He narrowly lost a similar referendum proposal in 2007 but has now matched the victories of allied leftist leaders in Ecuador and Bolivia, who also won referendums in the last few months.
After he won re-election in 2006, Chavez sped up aggressive nationalizations. But with oil prices more than $100 a barrel lower than last year, Chavez has far less income to spend.
Investors worry that he will burn through international reserves to maintain social programs despite falling revenue, and the value of Venezuela's currency and sovereign debt could fall further. Both have slumped in recent months on low oil prices and concerns that Chavez may remain in power for years.