Hugo Chavez: President for life or fading power?

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez now has the consitutional power to remain in office beyond a second term, but he may be losing the political support he needs

Venezuelans handed President Hugo Chavez another victory last week when they endorsed a constitutional amendment eliminating term limits for the office of president, permitting him to seek a third term. But the fall-off in oil prices, the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy, and the rickety state of its oil industry may not be the only challenges facing Chavez before his current term runs out four years from now.

Since he was first elected in 1999, Chavez has often portrayed himself as a regional leader, at the forefront of a new era of Latin American populism. However, in many Latin American countries, Chavez fails to inspire much confidence. Polling by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project suggests that negative views of Chavez are on the rise in several key Latin American nations.

Regional Views of Chavez
Elsewhere in the region, the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey found little confidence in Chavez to do the right thing in world affairs. Among the Latin American countries surveyed, fewer than one-in-five said they have confidence in Chavez’s ability as a global leader in Brazil (17%), Mexico (17%), Peru (15%) and Chile (14%). Even in the country led by one of Chavez’s closest allies – Bolivia’s Evo Morales – only one-third expressed confidence in the Venezuelan leader. Opinions about Chavez were more mixed in Argentina, where nearly as many expressed confidence as lacked confidence (40% vs. 43%, respectively).

Between 2007 and 2008, confidence in Chavez declined in all of the three Latin American countries included in the 2008 Global Attitutdes poll – Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. In Brazil, the drop was less substantial, from 17% to 12%. However, in Argentina, only a quarter (26%) held a lot or some confidence in Chavez in 2008, a drop of 14 percentage points from 2007. Similarly in Mexico, confidence ratings in Chavez declined 11 percentage points from 17% to 6%. 

Venezuelan Views of Chavez
While the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed that Chavez was unpopular throughout much of the region, he received relatively positive marks in his home country. In that poll, a slim majority of Venezuelans (54%) expressed confidence that their president would do the right thing in world affairs, while just 45% had little or no confidence. However, more recent polls – as well as losses in mid-term elections in November – have suggested that Venezuelans are closely divided over his rule.

The poor have often been considered Chavez’s political base, and in the 2007 survey he received more favorable ratings from lower-income and less-educated Venezuelans. Lower-income Venezuelans were considerably more likely to express confidence in Chavez than were their wealthier counterparts (61% vs. 49%). Moreover, six-in-ten Venezuelans with a high school education or less said that they had confidence in Chavez, compared with only 36% of those with more education.

In 2007, a majority of Venezuelans not only held positive views about Chavez’s foreign affairs’ abilities but also had a positive view about his general impact on their country. In 2007, six-in-ten said that Chavez had a good influence on the way things were going in their country, while 38% said he was a bad influence. Again, lower-income and less-educated Venezuelans were more likely to hold positive views about their president’s impact on the country.

However, more recent polling indicates that views of Chavez have grown more critical in Venezuela. For example, a poll conducted from May to June 2008 by the Venezuelan polling firm Alfredo Keller y Asociados (AKSA) indicated that 47% had a positive opinion of Chavez, down from 59% one year earlier and 64% in 2006. Although most reputable opinion polls showed the referendum passing by a small margin, a few recent polls suggested it might fail. While Chavez once again confounded the skeptics, his claim to regional leadership would appear to have little support in the neighborhood.

By Kathleen Holzwart, Research Analyst, Pew Global Attitudes Project

Venezuelans Rate Chavez’s Leadership

A lot/Some    Little/None    Don't Know

Spring 2007           %                  %                 %
Total                      54                 45                  1

Top half                  49                 49                  2
Bottom half            61                 39                  0

Some college
or more                 36                 61                  3
HS or less             60                 40                  1

The president’s influence on our country is… Good    Bad    DK
%       %       %
Total                                                                          60      38       1

Top half                                                                     54      45       1
Bottom half                                                               68       32       *

Some college
or more                                                                     43      56       1
HS or less                                                                 66      33       1

Based on Venezuelan respondents.
* Top half earn more than 1 million bolivaries per month, bottom half earn 1 million bolivares per month or less.
Pew Global Attitudes survey, May 2007.