CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez was conceding, his opponents rejoicing.

A day after the defeat of Chavez’s proposed referendum to expand presidential powers, the political landscape in Venezuela appeared transformed Monday.

But political leaders and analysts said it is too early to say whether the slim defeat of the referendum represents just a bump in the road for Chavez’s “socialism of the 21st century” or the awakening of a durable and vibrant opposition.

Even before the confetti had been cleaned up, the university students, business leaders, human-rights groups and ex-Chavistas who had mobilized for Sunday’s vote were trying to maintain a united front for future political dealings with the president.

Chavez’s conciliatory tone and the olive branch extended by some members of the opposition raised hopes that a polarized Venezuelan society could find common ground. Opponents defeated the changes to the constitution 51 percent to 49 percent.

Addressing the nation after his first electoral defeat since winning office in 1998, Chavez congratulated opponents but said he would keep trying to enact the components, piece by piece, through other legal channels.

“We will keep pushing the social provisions contained inside,” he told a national television audience while holding a tiny booklet of the referendum he carried in his shirt pocket. “I do not withdraw one comma of this proposal. This proposal is still alive.”

Some of the measures, such as letting the president seek re-election indefinitely, could resurface if Chavez wants to convene a constitutional assembly. Political parties loyal to Chavez control the National Assembly, so other measures, such as strengthening grass-roots citizen councils, could be proposed as laws.

Retired Gen. Raul Baduel, a former defense minister and high-profile Chavez defector, said he could support a constitutional assembly to consider some of the president’s proposals but worried that the president might simply try to implement them by decree.

“I am issuing an alert to the country,” he said at a news conference. “We need to be on alert to the possibility of imposing these changes in an unconstitutional way.”

Chavez had accused the U.S. of meddling in the referendum, a charge that diplomats here denied. But U.S. officials were clearly pleased Monday that Venezuelan voters had rejected Chavez’s stated wish of holding office until the year 2050.

“We felt that this referendum would make Chavez president for life, and that’s not ever a welcome development,” Undersecretary of State Nicholas 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.”

But in defeat, Chavez might have won in the long run, some analysts said, because the former army colonel trumpeted his recognition of the results as proof that he is committed to democracy.

Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said the last few days have shown Chavez’s two sides. One version is erratic and prone to insults and threats. The other side is intelligent and full of political savvy.

“Rather than diminish Chavez, this defeat puts him in an attractive light,” Birns said. “His gracious acceptance of defeat is one of his finest acts, real statesmanship. It’s certainly going to silence critics who say he is a nascent dictator.”

Birns said the results also might open Chavez’s eyes to the pockets of discontent that exist over a stubborn crime problem and shortages of milk and other basic food items. That might cause Chavez to focus on basic domestic initiatives rather than grandiose dreams of socialism throughout the Americas, Birns said.

“He’ll see that there’s no need to have a revolution a day,” Birns said.

At the presidential palace Monday, Chavez made reference to a miscalculation of the mood of the electorate, saying the referendum might have been too “profound and intense.”

Opposition leaders said they are ready to work with the government to find common ground. But Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center and expert on Venezuelan democracy, said that wouldn’t be easy.

The opposition was able to rally a coalition over the referendum, but it is unclear whether they can create a sound game plan for dealing with the government, especially because so much of the energy came from university students new to politics, McCoy said.

“And whether the president can step back, reconsider and reach out to his opponents is an open question, too,” McCoy added. “He has felt that the process of change can only be brought about by confrontation. I don’t know if this vote changes that view.”

Mario Isea, leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela congressional bloc, said that he still thinks many of the measures have broad support and that Chavez allies have not given up on making them a reality through the legislature.

“We are going to keep pushing this debate forward,” he said. “It is a very misguided analysis to say this vote is the end of Hugo Chavez.”

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): VENEZUELA

GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Venezuela result

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on MCT Direct (from MCT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Chavez

AP-NY-12-03-07 2102EST

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