The populist president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was last night on the brink of claiming a narrow victory after Sunday's national referendum on a raft of constitutional amendments to propel forward his socialist vision for the country, at least according to anonymous government sources citing exit polls.
Officials results were not expected for several more hours, however, and opposition leaders who had spearheaded the campaign to block the proposed constitutional changes were insisting their own exit data suggested a different outcome – that Mr Chavez would be defeated.
"In my opinion, these are not the (real) numbers. The government is wrong," claimed Delsa Solorzano, a member of the New Time party at the opposition's referendum headquarters in Caracas. Earlier, Mr Chavez said voting was going well. "We're going to accept the results, whatever they are."
A win for Chavez would give him the tools to accelerate his socialist programme for Venezuela and potentially allow him to remain president for life if the people keep voting for him. Critics have warned, however, that Venezuela would wake up under a virtual dictatorship.
Residents of the capital, Caracas, were roused at 4.30am by bursts of fireworks announcing the dawn of voting day as well as bugles booming out the reveille over loudspeakers. Meanwhile as many as 140,000 soldiers were mobilised across the country to ensure free voting at polling stations.
First indications were of a low turn-out after months of campaigning that has fired political passions throughout the electorate and ignited huge marches in cities across the country. Several opinion polls released before Sunday had suggested the outcome was too close to call.
Mr Chavez is seeking 69 amendments to the constitution. While some promised to win broad support, including a shortening of the work day and increased pension rights, others prompted allegations of a dictatorship-in-the-making. They would lift all limits on how many terms Mr Chavez could serve and also allow him to take control of the Central Bank and arrest people without charge during periods of emergency rule.
The President was banking on strong support from working classes and the poor who have benefited most from his policies of social largesse, funded by rising oil revenues. But his blueprint for a so-called Bolivarian, socialist revolution has frightened the middle classes.
On the election's eve, Mr Chavez, who is 53, even suggested that he would be interested in retaining power until 2050. "It's still too early for me to go," the former Army lieutenant colonel and nemesis of Washington declared. "I'll give my life for Venezuela until the last day."
He has threatened to cut off all oil supplies to the United States if he finds evidence of American interference with the referendum or attempts to cast doubt on the results. The US is Venezuela's biggest trading partner. He has also ratcheted up a dispute with Spain triggered when King Juan Carlos told him to "shut up" at a recent summit in Chile. Mr Chavez has threatened to nationalise Spanish banks in Venezuela if the King did not apologise.
Opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who lost to Chavez in the 2006 presidential race, urged voters to make their voice heard at the polling stations. "Venezuela is in the middle of a great crossroads," he cried, to chants of "freedom" from supporters.