CARACAS Polls show Venezuela's parliamentary election is a tight race between President Hugo Chavez's allies and his opponents, but Chavez's rising popularity and favourable election rules may tip the balance.
Chavez's traditionally high popularity -- in the 60s and 70s percentage range during his best moments of a more than decade-long rule -- was hit this year by a recession, electricity and water supply problems, and high crime.
But new polls show that a recovery in his personal ratings, which began several months ago, continued in August, giving him cause for optimism ahead of the September 26 National Assembly vote, which is seen as an indicator for the 2012 presidential election.
In recent weeks, Chavez has begun campaigning in earnest and after months of austerity the government has started pumping up the import sector, as well as offering cheap credit to consumers, creating some sense of economic recovery.
Whether Chavez's rising popularity will convert into votes for candidates from his Socialist Party and its allies in the upcoming election remains to be seen.
A new survey by pro-government pollster GIS XXI said 52.6 percent of respondents planned to support candidates allied to Chavez, while 47.4 percent backed the opposition.
A poll last month by the well-respected IVAD polling firm, consulted by both the government and opposition, said 54.3 percent would vote Socialist and 45.7 percent for the opposition.
Those results could be enough to give Chavez the two-thirds -- or 110 of the 165 seats -- he is aiming for, because an electoral law passed last year redrew some key voting districts to favour the Socialist Party, notably in rural areas, where Chavez's support is strongest.
With less than two-thirds of the seats, Chavez would need to win the support of the opposition for major laws such as the electoral overhaul passed last year.
Chavez has a virtual monopoly of the parliament at the moment because the opposition boycotted the last election.
As such, the government has been able to pass numerous controversial laws, including increasing the number of Supreme Court magistrates so the court favours the government.
In the past he has used "fast-track" decree powers to bypass parliament. But to get those, he needs the support of three-fifths, or 99, of the lawmakers.
Polling firm Hinterlaces, seen as closer to the opposition, said in its most recent poll 37 percent planned to vote for Chavez-allied candidates, and 41 percent for the opposition.
Such a result would lead to a strong opposition presence, though not necessarily a majority, in the assembly.
Chavez's personal approval was 46 percent in the Hinterlaces poll at the end of August, versus 41 percent in June.
IVAD, which tends to place Chavez's support higher, had him at 65.7 percent, up from 58 percent in January.
Venezuela's main polling companies are almost always accused of being politicized by different sides.
They differ widely in the ratings they give Chavez depending on the areas and proportion of different social classes they survey, as well as the questions they ask.
But the polls tend to reflect the same trends.
And while Chavez's popularity is far from his heyday, the latest ratings would still be the envy of many a president and show resilience for a leader in office since 1999 who this year has overseen a currency devaluation, high inflation, anger over crime and a scandal over rotting food.
(Editing by Eric Beech)