Chavez Gets A Free Hand

Populist-leaning President Hugo Chavez gained a new foothold to revamp VenezuelaÂ's government as his leftist supporters won an overwhelming majority of seats in an election for a constitutional assembly Sunday.

With most of the vote counted, Chavez's Patriotic Pole coalition had an overwhelming 119 of the assembly's 128 seats up for grabs Sunday, according to official results from the National Electoral Council.

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The two biggest vote getters were Chavez's wife, Marisabel, and his former chief of staff, Alfredo Pena.

Opposition leaders feared Sunday's vote was a prelude to dictatorship in the world's third-largest oil exporter because Chavez has pledged to urge the constitutional assembly to abolish Congress and the Supreme Court.

Â"Today, a new Venezuela is born with greater social security, where human rights are respected and all Venezuelans have the right to housing, education and health,Â" Chavez said before casting his vote amid a cheering throng in eastern Caracas.

With the new assembly at his side, Chavez plans to scrap the country's 1961 constitution and could potentially dissolve the opposition-controlled Congress -- a prospect that frightens the business community and underlines his perceived authoritarian tendencies.

The new charter will be the cornerstone of his radical agenda, which he has termed a Â"peaceful revolutionÂ" to root out entrenched corruption and cronyism.

Chavez celebrated the victory by addressing hundreds of ecstatic supporters from what he dubbed Â"the people's balconyÂ" of the presidential palace.

Â"Each day I love the Venezuelan people more. ... The patriotic victory has been overwhelming,Â" he told the crowd, which chanted his name and joined him in singing the national anthem.

But in a sign of moderation, he said minority voices in the assembly would not be drowned out and he would not object if the assembly decided to allow Congress to continue.

Â"We're building a true democracy here, and a true democracy is built through cnsensus and respect for others,Â" he said.

At 47 percent, turnout was relatively low compared to last December's presidential election, when people turned out in droves to vote for Chavez. About 11 million of Venezuela's 23 million people are eligible to vote.

Chavez also has proposed that the new assembly create institutions to replace the Congress and Supreme Court, which he sees as products of an old, corrupt system.

Critics, however, fear that the president will have a free hand in imposing authoritarian rule.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report