CARACAS Venezuelan politicians are accusing pollsters of rigging surveys ahead of President Hugo Chavez's October re-election bid, threatening to make the polarized South American nation's campaign even nastier.
Most of the country's best-known pollsters show opposition challenger Henrique Capriles trailing more than 15 percentage points behind the socialist Chavez, whose appeal among the country's poor has stayed strong even as his longtime image of energy and indomitability is dented by his battle with cancer.
Capriles has angrily condemned negative poll numbers as the work of "immoral mafiosos" manipulating results to favor Chavez, while one opposition politician said the government considered using state funds to pay the travel expenses of two pollsters.
It is not just the opposition that is complaining about the pollsters.
A top official from Chavez's ruling Socialist Party accused two of them of putting their companies at the service of a wider campaign by the opposition to cry fraud and destabilize the country if Capriles loses.
The pollsters deny the accusations.
Though politicians worldwide routinely dispute unfavorable polls, the "survey war" in Venezuela involves direct attacks on the integrity of the pollsters themselves, making the already vituperative campaign even more heated.
Oscar Schemel of polling firm Hinterlaces, which Capriles has accused of publishing "bogus polls," said the opposition should be highlighting Chavez's weak points such as high crime or inflation, rather than going after pollsters.
"Who benefits from the opposition focusing on the polls and not the key campaign issues?" said Schemel. "Part of the government's strategy is to distract the opposition, and they've been distracting them for four months by publishing polls."
Hinterlaces' April poll shows Chavez up by 19 points.
Polls are historically controversial in Venezuela. One opposition exit poll in a 2004 recall referendum showed Chavez losing by around 20 percentage points - almost the exact opposite of the result later certified by electoral authorities.
Venezuela's public opinion is also notoriously volatile.
Chavez won his first election in 1998 despite trailing in the run-up to the vote, and he was behind in the polls before winning the recall referendum. That suggests Capriles' current position is not irreversible.
Venezuelan pollsters - who range from a former Chavez minister to an openly pro-opposition figure - also tend to double as political analysts, offering partisan opinions in state media or opposition-linked newspapers.
This increases the likelihood of them being attacked even if their methodology is sound.
TURN THE TIDE?
Capriles' resounding victory in opposition primaries in February, combined with Chavez's absences from the public stage since a 2011 cancer diagnosis, created the opposition's best shot at taking power since Chavez was first elected in 1998.
But polls widely show the president's lead, measured as intention to vote for the former soldier over Capriles or any opposition candidate, has crept up since the end of 2011.
After extended periods of communicating almost exclusively via his Twitter account, the 57-year-old Chavez has increased his public profile in the last two weeks with a run of live appearances on state media.
As in previous elections, a proliferation of little-known public opinion firms with no discernable track record have emerged from obscurity promoting polls that appear to openly favor one candidate or the other.
Even with Chavez leading in the surveys, government leaders have also found ample opportunities to take aim at pollsters.
"They invent these polls so they can later cry fraud and return to their plans for destabilization," said Chavez campaign chief Jorge Rodriguez in reference to two of the most prominent public opinion firms, Datanalisis and Consultores 21. Their methodology, he said, was "an insult to anyone's intelligence".
One state television commentator dedicated an entire program to excoriating Datanalisis' director, Luis Vicente Leon, for not publishing a survey showing Chavez up by 17 percentage points, accusing him of concealing the information to avoid upsetting the opposition.
Leon responded that only clients who paid for the survey received the numbers, which were obtained and published days earlier by news agencies including Reuters.
Chavez and his supporters have frequently dismissed unfavorable polls - including many conducted by Datanalisis - as fabricated studies meant to favor his adversaries.
VENEZUELANS 'SPLIT DOWN MIDDLE'
Capriles, a 39-year-old whose youthful vibrancy contrasts with a Chavez in convalescence, insists the poll numbers do not yet reflect the results of his house-to-house tour in which he criss-crosses the country shaking hands, kissing housewives and hugging babies.
He says widely documented discrimination against Chavez adversaries, including denying employment to those who signed recall referendum petitions against Chavez, has made many afraid to express their opinions in public.
"We have no doubt that this election is a technical tie right now," Capriles' campaign chief Armando Briquet told Reuters. "I simply can't believe that a country that's split down the middle wouldn't vote that way."
German Campos of pollster Consultores 30.11, which has also been the target of opposition criticism, said he is surprised he and colleagues have come in for so much flak given the poll results have been closer this year than at previous votes.
"This has to do with the polarization of Venezuelan society," Campos said. "There are groups within the supporters of Chavez and the opposition that are not willing to listen to something that they don't want to hear."
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Marianna Parraga; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray, Gary Hill)