CARACAS, Venezuela – A strong majority of Venezuelans plan to cast their ballots for President Hugo Chavez on Dec. 3, with most saying the fiery opponent of President Bush has handled government and foreign relations well, according to an AP-Ipsos poll that revealed deep divisions along class lines.
About 59 percent of likely voters said they would vote for Chavez for a third term, while 27 percent said they would support opposition candidate Manuel Rosales. Thirteen percent of those surveyed by the polling firm Ipsos for The Associated Press said they were undecided or wouldn't answer.
Since Chavez was first elected in 1998, the leftist president has become perhaps Latin America's most controversial leader while gaining notoriety worldwide as an outspoken critic of the U.S. government.
At home, the poll showed, Venezuelans are generally content with the country's direction, with 61 percent of all respondents saying Venezuela is moving in the right direction and 31 percent saying it's on the wrong track.
The survey found sharp differences in voting preference depending on income. The wealthiest likely voters solidly supported Rosales, while the middle class appeared split and the poorest overwhelmingly backed Chavez over Rosales — 70 percent to 16 percent.
Overall, 63 percent said they approve of Chavez's administration, although 66 percent said they see Chavez as authoritarian. Chavez is a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but an overwhelming 84 percent said they oppose adopting a political system like Cuba's — and that view cut across class lines.
The survey was carried out Nov. 10-18 among 2,500 registered voters interviewed face-to-face at their homes, including 1,500 determined by the pollsters to be likely voters based on their answers and historical turnout levels. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points for results among registered voters, and 3 points for likely voters.
Despite Chavez's often bombastic style, including a recent speech to the United Nations in which he called Bush "the devil," 59 percent said they approve of Chavez's handling of international relations.
A majority, 63 percent, said they have a negative view of Bush, while 55 percent expressed an unfavorable view of the United States in general. Fewer — 44 percent — had an unfavorable view of American people, compared with 48 percent who had a positive view of Americans.
A huge majority, 79 percent, said they consider the political system in Venezuela at least somewhat democratic, though that majority was smaller for the middle class and the wealthy than for the poorest. And 46 percent said there seems to be less freedom in Venezuela today than in the past.
Chavez has increasingly dominated Venezuelan politics since he was first elected nearly eight years ago. In 1999, he oversaw constitutional reforms that triggered new elections, and he easily secured a six-year term in 2000.
Overall, only 44 percent were very confident that votes would be counted accurately and only 42 percent were very confident their votes would be kept secret. Rosales supporters were much less confident in the process.
A full 57 percent of respondents were at least somewhat concerned that people could face reprisals for how they vote — 79 percent of Rosales supporters and 46 percent of Chavez supporters. Such a fear factor is a potential source of survey error, meaning for instance that some respondents might feel afraid to tell an interviewer they support Rosales.
The poll offered contrasting assessments of Chavez himself. Sixty percent saw him as confrontational, while 48 percent thought he put his personal political interests above those of Venezuela. On the other hand, 64 percent said he solves people's problems and 59 percent described him as a good administrator.
A considerable number, 47 percent, said Chavez should cut back on his televised speeches, which he makes nearly every day, often going on for hours. Forty-four percent said they believe he makes the right amount of speeches.
Chavez is less popular with people in the middle class, 56 percent of whom rated him positively, as compared with 80 percent among the poorest.
Chavez got his highest marks overall for his handling of education, with 75 percent approval, and health, 74 percent, and his lowest marks for his handling of corruption and crime — 45 percent and 34 percent, respectively. Violent crime is common, and Chavez's opponents accuse him of doing little to fight endemic corruption.
Crime stood out as Venezuelans' top concern: 67 percent called it one of the most important problem facing the country, with unemployment in second place. Venezuela's jobless rate officially stands at just under 9 percent, but 23 percent of those polled described themselves as unemployed.
Venezuelans disagreed over their country's future, with 37 percent favoring a socialist economic system, 22 percent favoring capitalism and 33 percent preferring a mix of the two.
Although Chavez has sought increasingly close ties with Cuba and Iran, the poll suggested only limited support for those initiatives.
Opinion was split on Castro, with 44 percent expressing negative views and 42 percent positive. Respondents split evenly when asked whether they viewed Cuba favorably as a country. And only 28 percent had a favorable view of Chavez's close ally Iran — fewer than the 37 percent who thought favorably of the U.S.
Fifty-one percent saw the United States as a military threat to Venezuela — as Chavez does — while 44 percent didn't.
The poll found a parallel between support for Chavez and seeing benefits from his oil-funded social programs, which range from free health care by Cuban doctors to heavily subsidized government grocery stores.
Sixty-eight percent of likely voters who have benefited from at least one of the programs, or who know someone who has, said they'd vote for Chavez, compared with 23 percent of those who haven't. While the poor are most likely to see benefits from the programs, the correlation holds true across class lines.