Venezuelan president's backers celebrate referendum win

February 16 (Xinhua) Supporters celebrated President Hugo Chavez's win in the constitutional referendum Sunday night, which has lifted term limits to allow him to run in 2012 presidential election and stay in power as long as he keeps winning elections.

Chavez won the referendum with 54 percent of approval according to preliminary results, Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, announced late Sunday, hours after the referendum was officially closed.

Supporters roamed the streets in vehicles and motorcycles in Caracas after the announcement, waving red flags and honking horns to celebrate the victory. Fireworks were lit across the city.

Chavez, in his signature red shirt, led the supporters gathering in front of the balcony of his presidential palace singing the national anthem.

'Today we opened wide the gates of the future. Venezuela will not return to its past of indignity,' he told the supporters.

The celebrations had already started early morning though the closing of the voting time is around 18:00 (2230 GMT) Sunday.

Venezuelans from almost all the 23 states of the country got up early, and gathered at the voting centers to participate in the referendum, which began at 6:00 a.m. local time (1030 GMT).

A lot of people had been waiting for the voting centers to open way earlier before the first sun beam showed up, local TV reported.

Nearly 17 million people cast their vote at the referendum.

The voting process went smoothly in all the states, said General Jesus Gonzalez, who leads the security movement known as the 'Plan Republica', told a press

Gonzalez said that several people have been arrested in different states due to felonies against the voting centers.

Chavez was first elected in 1998 and reelected in 2006. The constitution was amended one year after his first election to allow him to run for a second term. His current term will end in 2013.

He proposed to amend the 1999 constitution to allow him seeking presidency in 2009