Venezuela: Polls Point to Likely Chávez Victory

CARACAS – For the past two and a half years, political polls in Venezuela showed that a majority of respondents were opposed to President Hugo Chávez. But that has now changed.

Most of the latest polls have indicated that he is likely to win next Sunday’s recall referendum, when 14 million voters will decide whether to revoke his mandate or allow him to complete his term, which ends in January 2007.

Venezuela “is in the midst of a survey war and many of us are falling victim,” said Félix Seijas of the Datos polling company, refuting a newspaper cover story that reported that in a poll by his firm, 50 percent of those interviewed were against Chávez and 44 percent in his favor.

That information is false, said the pollster, who added that the real results of the survey, carried out “for very private persons and institutions, can absolutely not be revealed.”

However, he did mention that Datos does not consider the number of “ni-ni” or “neither-nor” votes – those neither with Chávez nor the opposition – an important issue.

In late June, Keller and Associates interviewed 1,200 people throughout the country and found that 34 percent intended to vote “Yes” to the proposal of removing Chávez, while 45 percent said they would vote “No,” and 19 percent said they were undecided.

But Alfredo Keller, the company director, said the “Yes” vote could win if the “undecideds” vote against Chávez.

“The opposition can win if they get the hidden vote – those people who, on the day of the referendum, will vote for an option that differs from what they said in the survey,” he argued.

The opposition Democratic Coordinator coalition, which gathered the signatures to trigger the referendum against Chávez, has practically adopted the “hidden vote” theory as its official argument.

“Venezuela is going to be like Nicaragua in 1990, when the [pre-election] polls indicated that the [governing leftist] Sandinista [National Liberation Front] would win, but then the opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro triumphed,” Democratic Coordinator spokesman Jesús Torrealba told IPS.

However, political analyst Eleazar Díaz Rangel, former head of the Latin American Federation of Journalists, said “it is not true that the polls failed in Nicaragua. The Ecco, Grenberg, Bendicen and Belden polling companies failed, but Cid, Borges, Mora y Araujo and Venezuela’s Doxa all said Chamorro would win.”

Opposition leaders and many of their supporters writing in the press argue the “hidden vote” is that of civil servants or those living in poor neighborhoods who, in environments dominated by supporters of Chávez, say they will vote “No,” but when casting their secret ballot will actually vote “Yes.”

Also in June, Grenberg interviewed 2,000 voters, in association with Venezuelan firms, and came up with a tie at 48 percent for each side.

North American Opinion Research, based in the northeastern U.S. state of Delaware, surveyed 2,600 people in all 24 provinces in July and found that 60 percent said they would vote for Chávez and 35 percent against.

Another U.S. firm, Evans/McDonough, working with the local company Varianzas in July, found that 51 percent of their 2,000-strong sample said they would vote for Chávez and 43 percent against, while six percent said they would not vote at all. The polling company thus predicted a victory for the president by 55 percent against 45 percent of the electorate.

The Venezuelan company Hinterlaces polled 1,500 people in the ten most densely populated areas of the country in July and found 51 percent in favor of Chávez, 40 percent against and nine percent undecided or planning not to vote.

Results are still pending from the two companies most used by private companies in Venezuela, Mercanálisis and Datanálisis. Their figures from the second half of 2001 until May 2004 saw support for Chávez varying between 28 and 43 percent, while the opposition share ranged from 57 to 72 percent of voters.

This variation is due to the fact that “a survey is a snapshot of the moment, of the day. Things can change in such a complicated, polarized and volatile set of circumstances like the present,” Datanálisis director Luis León told IPS.

“The opposition and the media have presented surveys against the government and President Chávez for years, and now that the tide is turning, they refuse to show their results,” said Information Minister Jesse Chacón.

Germán Campos with the Varianzas polling firm told IPS that “results based on different but equally valid samples can differ in a political situation as closed and entrenched” as that of Venezuela today.

“At the moment it can be said the two sides are very close,” said León, as the government and the opposition have a rock-solid hold on one-third of the electorate each, meaning the decision is in the hands of the “non-aligned” – the group Seijas says does not actually exist.

But according to Evans/McDonough, 86 percent of those surveyed by the firm in June were already sure of how they would vote, while North American Opinion Research found that 92 percent of their interviewees were sure of their decision.

“There is a clear tendency that many more will vote to ratify Chávez in office than to revoke his mandate,” said Evans/McDonough executive Alex Evans.

Samuel Moncada of the pro-government election campaign team told IPS “the true hidden vote was not shown in the surveys for a long time – that of Venezuelans who were waiting to see whether or not there would be a referendum. Now that there will be a vote, they will express their support for the president.”

In the final stretch of the campaign, the governing coalition – which has offered more abundant and eye-catching propaganda than the opposition – is counting on mass rallies to demonstrate that the support forecast in the surveys is real.

In the meantime, the Democratic Coordinator is carrying out what it calls a “silent campaign,” with door to door visits to people who have at some time signed a petition against Chávez, to shore up the conviction that the “hidden vote” will come through on Sunday.