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Chávez, Sí, but maybe not forever

Venezuelans are torn ahead of Sunday's vote on whether to scrap presidential term limits.

By Charlie DevereuxContributor / February 14, 2009

POLARIZED: A protester wore a sticker on her face that says 'No is no, vote no' at a rally last week in Caracas.

Howard Yanes/AP

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Caracas, Venezuela

In recent weeks, students have marched by the thousands urging Venezuelans to vote "No" in Sunday's referendum, which seeks to abolish presidential term limits and allow President Hugo Chávez to run for reelection indefinitely.

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Not to be outdone, supporters of Mr. Chávez stormed an opposition debate at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas last week.

Such fiery battles between those who support Chávez's "21st century socialism" and those who believe he is squandering the country's vast oil wealth on populist social projects have broken out in the run up to each of the 14 votes held during Chavez's 10 years as president.

Yet, despite the media's focus on Venezuela's ideological extremes, most Venezuelans find themselves wavering quietly in the middle, and capturing this silent majority will prove crucial to Sunday's vote.

A survey in November by the polling firm Datanalisis found that 48.5 percent of Venezuelans support neither Chávez nor the opposition. This demographic – dubbed the ni nis or "neither nors" – has shrunk to 32 percent in the run up to the vote, but the group is still large enough to be the deciding factor, says Luis Vicente Leon, director of Datanalisis.

"The referendum will be won or lost on what happens with the ni ni," says Mr. Leon. "There are ni nis with a tendency toward [supporting Chávez], there are ni nis with a tendency toward the opposition, and there are ni nis who may vote for Chávez or may vote for the opposition, depending on what is going on."

All of them – to varying degrees – are capable of swinging either way, says Leon.

Where are the solutions?

For many Venezuelans, neither Chávez's government nor the opposition – a loose coalition of six or seven major parties that range from center left to center right – provides a solution.

An office manager in Caracas who spoke on condition of anonymity says that he voted for Chávez in each election up to 2006.

But he voted against a package of reforms – that included the scrapping of presidential term limits – in a referendum in December 2007.

In last year's regional elections, he voted for opposition candidates for governor and mayor but also for a party aligned with Chávez in the legislative council as "a counterweight".

"I'm not from one side or the other because I can't find any figure that represents me," says the office manager. "There are sectors of the opposition that are identical to what existed before and which propose the same types of policies that are very regressive from a social point of view.

"They don't represent a real alternative for change against chavismo," he says. "They're very much controlled by the sectors with power – in some ways Chávez is right to call them oligarchic."

The office manager applauds initiatives such as the community councils, which are neighborhood panels of elected representatives chosen to address local problems, but does not necessarily credit the government with their success.

• 40 percent of those polled identified themselves as supporters of President Hugo Chávez, according to a poll released last month by the Datanalisis polling firm in Caracas, Venezuela.

• 22.5 percent of those polled say they support the opposition.

• 32 percent of those polled supported neither Chávez nor the opposition.

• 65 percent of those who support neither Chávez nor the opposition are inclined to vote against Sunday's referendum to scrap presidential term limits.

• 48.5 percent of those polled in a similar survey back in Novemer said they support neither Chávez nor the opposition.

Source: Datanalisis

Polls show split electorate

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