Polls show spike in support for Venezuela’s Chavez

CARACAS (Reuters) – Two new opinion polls showed the popularity of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez rising as he battles cancer a year ahead of a re-election bid.

The 57-year-old has undergone four chemotherapy sessions since having surgery in Cuba in June to remove a baseball-sized tumour from his pelvis. He has vowed to win another six-year term at next year’s Oct 7 presidential vote.

In the latest opinion surveys out this week, local pollster Datanalisis said his popularity jumped 10 per cent to almost 59 per cent last month compared with July.

A pro-government organization, GIS XXI, said 61 per cent of those asked described the president’s performance as “very good, and that 58 per cent would cast their ballot for Chavez if the election were held tomorrow.
Analysts attribute the increase to a “solidarity effect” that had been expected since the president’s health problems were made public.

But they question how long it will last.
“There is no doubt Chavez has benefited from people’s emotion about his illness. The uncertainty is whether it will last for a year?” the president of Datanalisis, Luis Vicente Leon, asked on Twitter.

“What makes Chavez popular is not that he is sick, but rather his battle to overcome his sickness.”
Chavez accuses his opponents of trying to capitalize on his illness for political gain.
Beyond the president, his inner circle and his doctors, very little is known about his precise condition.

An opposition coalition sees next year’s vote as its best chance yet to unseat him. But its members face the potentially divisive challenge first of picking a single “unity” candidate at primaries to be held on Feb 12.

Whoever emerges from that process will have to forge policies that go beyond simple opposition to Chavez, a seasoned campaigner who can fall back on his government’s revenue from oil sales and the state’s domination of local media.

Despite those advantages, experts forecast Venezuela’s hardest fought election since Chavez came to power in 1999, and the opposition will seek to tap into increased disquiet at stuttering services, housing shortages and high crime rates.

And they caution that local opinion polls have often showed short-term volatility in Chavez’s support levels in the past.

“His peaks in popularity have tended to be close to elections and have been followed by rapid downward adjustments. Chavez’s challenge is to sustain this upswing in popularity for longer than in the past,” Barclays Capital said in a note.

With a fanatical support base among Venezuela’s poor, Chavez has enjoyed ratings as high as 80 per cent in the years after taking office, but they dipped to below 50 last year on discontent during a two-year recession.

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