CARACAS Venezuelan pollsters diverged sharply on Wednesday over whether President Hugo Chavez will win re-election on October 7 or lose to opposition rival Henrique Capriles in an increasingly close election.
Most of the country's best-known polls show Chavez ahead, but Capriles' poll numbers have been creeping up in the closing days of the campaign. Polls in Venezuela are notoriously controversial and public opinion has shifted quickly.
The closely watched election will determine whether Chavez continues his drive to turn the OPEC nation into a bastion of oil-financed socialism. Capriles has promised to build a Brazil-style "modern left" administration that balances social welfare with respect for private enterprise.
A survey by respected firm Consultores 21 made public on Wednesday showed Capriles with a slim lead of 0.8 percentage point over Chavez, although this was within the margin of error and similar to the firm's poll a month earlier.
Consultores 21 said 46.5 percent would vote for Capriles compared with 45.7 percent for Chavez.
But public opinion firm Hinterlaces released a survey on Wednesday showing 50 percent of voters backing Chavez with 34 percent voting for Capriles, although Chavez's 16 percentage point lead was close to the percentage of undecided voters.
Another polling company, Consultores 30.11, released a survey showing Chavez with a lead of almost 20 points over his younger rival. That poll showed 57.2 percent backing Chavez and 37.5 voting for Capriles.
The polls were carried out during the last several weeks.
Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, faces a tough challenge beating Chavez, whose combination of liberal social spending and folksy charisma has made him one of the continent's most popular leaders.
Chavez's administration has for months been giving out apartments, home appliances and pensions to poor Venezuelans while highlighting his social "missions" that provide low-cost healthcare, job training and university education.
Capriles hopes to tap into growing discontent with crime, unemployment and corruption. Investors broadly believe his government would usher in greater economic stability and would gradually dismantle Chavez's system of currency and price controls.
(Reporting by Marianna Parraga. Writing by Brian Ellsworth. Editing by Andre Grenon)