Chavez declares Venezuela free again as he wins overwhelming majority


President Hugo Chavez's leftwing coalition has won an overwhelming majority of seats in a popular assembly charged with rewriting Venezuela's constitution. This prompted the former coup leader to say that the corruption-plagued state was free again.

As it is likely that the 131-seat assembly will go beyond its brief and dissolve the opposition-led Congress, President Chavez appears to have won an unassailable legislative base from which to carry out his social revolution.

Opponents, however, worry that the charismatic leader - whose wife and brother were elected as well as about 20 former military colleagues - has authoritarian tendencies and is creating the apparatus for dictatorial rule.

Results based on about 80 per cent of the ballot showed that at least 91 per cent of the 131-member Constitutional Assembly were candidates of the President, who led a violent coup attempt seven years ago in the name of Venezuela's poor.

Mr Chavez celebrated by addressing hundreds of ecstatic supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace.

"Each day I love the Venezuelan people more. The victory of the patriots has been pulverising," he told the crowd of 5,000. "We are constructing a true democracy in a way that those who destroyed the country from here didn't know how to."

Mr Chavez rode to victory on a wave of public outrage over political corruption labelled amongst the worst in the world. More than 50 per cent of Venezuelans are impoverished, even though the country possesses the largest oil reserves in the Western hemisphere.

The new assembly will convene in early August and have six months in which to write a new constitution, which will reflect proposals of Mr Chavez's such as allowing presidential re-election and the election of judges.

There are likely to be some fierce political battles since the Supreme Court has said, in defiance of Mr Chavez, that the assembly does not have authority over the congress and judiciary until a new constitution is voted.

Some Venezuelans were voicing fears that the one-sided victory was an ominous event for the world's third-largest oil exporter.

"I'm not going to passively let them sneak in a military regime with the appearance of cheap populism that's going to set us back 100 years and keep us a backward, Third World country," said Mr Jorge Olavarria, one of nine opposition candidates who won an assembly seat.

Nearly six months into his five-year term, Mr Chavez has emerged as one of Latin America's most colourful and intriguing leaders. When not vilifying opponents or breaking protocol in order to comfort the sick and destitute, he preaches a fuzzy ideology named for Venezuela's favourite son, the 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar, whom he quotes profusely.

He even suggested changing the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.