January 28, 2009 / 7:56 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 2-Chavez has slim lead for vote on re-election-poll

(Adds details, background in paragraphs 7-12)

By Enrique Andres Pretel

CARACAS, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez holds a slim lead before a Feb. 15 referendum on whether to allow him to seek re-election, a prominent polling firm said on Wednesday.

The socialist, anti-U.S. president who has been in power a decade has consolidated his support in a sometimes violent campaign this month and overtaken the opposition, the Datanalisis firm, one of the OPEC nation’s most respected pollsters, told Reuters.

The “Yes” camp is ahead 51.5 percent to 48.1 percent, according to the survey of 1,300 people in mid-January. Chavez’s lead was slightly bigger than the survey’s margin of error of 2.7 percentage points.

“This reflects a country divided into two, basically equal parts,” the pollster’s director Luis Vicente Leon said.

The close race means the vote will hinge on which side can best motivate its supporters to go to the polls, he added.

Chavez narrowly lost a referendum in 2007 to allow him to run for office as long as he keeps winning elections. He says he is trying again because he needs more time to deepen his self-styled socialist revolution.

Without a constitutional change, Chavez should leave office in 2013. If he wins the referendum, he will be able to run in late 2012 for re-election to another six-year term.

Last month, a Datanalisis poll put support for Chavez’s proposal below 40 percent.

But the president, who is popular among the majority poor for spending Venezuela’s oil income on welfare programs, has since persuaded many of his own longtime backers that the vote is simply about whether they support him or not, Leon said.

Despite Chavez’s surge, Leon said his lead was so small and the opposition’s support sufficiently stable that the “Yes” camp could not be considered the favorite.

The campaign has intensified this month with Chavez holding almost daily rallies and obliging television stations to broadcast his events live.

Opposition students, who were pivotal in defeating him in 2007, have also reemerged as a political force with protests that have sometimes erupted into clashes with security forces. (Writing by Saul Hudson; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray)

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