For the first time in nearly two years, public opinion polls in Venezuela are showing backing for President Hugo Chavez dipping below 50 percent. But the country's opposition is splintered, disorganized and disengaged. With presidential elections slated for next year, it remains to be seen whether the populist, self-proclaimed socialist leader will face a real test at the ballot box.
President Chavez' political fortunes have swung wildly in recent years. In 2002, he was briefly removed from power in a failed coup. Months later, his approval rating sank to 30 percent during a national strike.
But he came roaring back to crush a recall referendum last year, with official tallies showing nearly 60 percent voting to keep him in office. As recently as May of this year, his approval rating stood at 70 percent, buoyed by soaring oil revenues and massive expenditures on social programs.
But a poll released earlier this month showed backing for Mr. Chavez at 47 percent. One opposition leader who is contemplating a presidential bid next year, Caracas newspaper publisher Teodoro Petkoff, says a gap is emerging between the public's expectations and Mr. Chavez' ability to meet them, regardless of how much oil money flows into the country.
"Increasingly, demands are being heard from his own political base, demands for results," he said. "This is an indication that too many promises have not been kept. And while Chavez' message remains popular, satisfaction with his programs is waning."
But Alfredo Keller, who heads the Caracas firm that conducted the survey, says one should not read too much into the recent data showing Chavez-backers slipping below the 50-percent mark.
"One could therefore conclude that the opposition is now in the majority," said Mr. Keller. "That is not necessarily so, because those who do not back the government do not necessarily back the political opposition. Venezuela is divided into three blocks: those who support the government, those who oppose it and those who want nothing to do with the government or the opposition."
On the streets of Caracas, retiree Eva Maldonado says she believes in President Chavez and his promises to help the poor. But even she says she would like to see a viable opposition in the country.
"I think there should be an opposition, because I believe in the democratic process," she said. "I do not believe in single-party rule, but unfortunately the opposition here is weak."
The high point of the opposition's influence came in late 2002, when it launched a national strike that ground the country to a halt for several months. Yet President Chavez refused to give in to opposition demands that he resign, and the strike eventually crumbled. After a year of legal battles, the opposition did manage to secure a recall referendum in 2004.
But political science professor Ricardo Sucre Heredia, who teaches at Venezuela's Central University, says the opposition had no message other than to continue railing against the president.
"Why did the opposition lose the referendum? Because it was incapable of telling people what its program would be," he explained. "People said, 'I will stick with President Chavez because at least I know what he will do.' People will not support an opposition that does not convey confidence, security, or an idea where the country should be taken."
President Chavez' allies control the legislature, the judiciary, and many local governments. Professor Sucre Heredia says such a concentration of power can only lead to abuses.
"The country is facing the terrible possibility of [Chavez' political] hegemony, of an authoritarian democracy, of the elimination of liberty, of copying the Cuban model - in short, the terrible possibility of a government that does whatever it wants, as it is doing right now," he added.
But President Chavez recently dismissed such concerns in an appearance on state-run television, noting that he was democratically elected nearly seven years ago, that his continued governance was confirmed in 2004, and that the people will have their say once again in presidential elections next year.
"Our proposal is a democracy that is not only representative, but also participatory. And a democracy that advances fundamental human rights," said Mr. Chavez.
As for next year's elections, no one is counting out the opposition. But even among observers who would like to see a change in government, many wonder whether the opposition will be able to field a candidate with the stature and the resources to forge a campaign that truly challenges the incumbent.