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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.

(Page 2 of 2)

"The transformations thus far have been cosmetic," he says of Chávez's 10 years in power.

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"Those initiatives where communities have been well organized have had good results," says the office manager. "But there were lots of communities that were very well organized before Chávez."

An architect from Venezuela's third-largest city, Valencia, who also spoke on condition of anonymity says that polarization puts her in an equivocal position.

"It is felt that either I have to support everything that Chávez says or think that everything that the opposition leaders do is positive," she says. "Polarization means that we cannot come to any solutions."

The government campaign seems bent on dividing opinion.

Fliers handed out in the streets by Chávez supporters warn of the dismantling of free healthcare and education programs funded by oil profits and of a return to a pre-Chávez "oligarchy" where the poor once again would be marginalized if Chávez cannot continue.

Polarization helps Chávez

Polarization favors Mr. Chávez because he has a larger core of followers to call on, says Leon.

About 40 percent of those polled by Datanalisis last month identified themselves as chavistas, while 22.5 percent saw themselves as opposition. Chávez, says Leon, is creating an atmosphere which is "not the relaxed situation of saying yes or no to an amendment, it's the tension of 'If I don't make that decision, my leader will be destroyed.' "

"Of course by taking that path he wins and loses. He wins over those who defend him even though they don't like the referendum, and he loses those who are too near the edge who say, 'This man's gone crazy.'"

Chávez may have a stronger base of supporters, but Leon's most recent survey found that 65 percent of the ni nis were inclined to vote against the amendment, a number that would tip the balance in the opposition's favor – if they decide to vote.

Leopoldo Puchi, of the opposition party Movement Towards Socialsm (MAS) and a columnist for the pro-Chávez newspaper Ultimas Noticias, believes the opposition could capture undecided voters if they toned down their rhetoric and acknowledged Chávez's successes.

Demand for focus on practical issues

"They should talk more about practical issues – about rubbish in the streets, power cuts, food shortages," says Puchi. "They should accuse the government of inefficiency rather than criticize its ideology."

The most recent polls give Mr. Chávez's "Yes" vote a marginal lead.

The referendum could be decided by just 200,000 votes.

The key is mobilization.

John Magdaleno, a political scientist at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, believes that if abstention is less than 35 percent it will mean an almost certain victory for the "No" camp.

For Puchi, the referendum will be won or lost on how the wording of the amendment is interpreted.

"It's a question of semantics. We insist that it's reelection," he says. [Chávez] insists [he will have] the right to run again. It's the same but words are so important in psychological manipulation. That's the crucial point for the ni nis."

• 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