CARACAS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has lost his lead eight days before a referendum on ending his term limit, an independent pollster said on Saturday, in a swing in voter sentiment against the Cuba ally.
Forty-nine percent of likely voters oppose Chavez's proposed raft of constitutional changes to expand his powers, compared with 39 percent in favor, a survey by respected pollster Datanalisis showed.
Just weeks ago, Chavez had a 10-point lead for his proposed changes in the OPEC nation that must be approved in a referendum, the polling company said.
Despite the swing, company head Luis Vicente Leon said he did not rule out a comeback by the popular president.
Chavez has trounced the opposition at the polls on average once a year and can deploy a huge state-backed machinery to get out the vote, Leon said.
Still, the survey was the latest blow to Chavez. He has suffered a series of defections over his plan, including an ex-defense minister who had restored him to power after a brief 2002 putsch but who called Chavez's reforms a new "coup."
"The debate over voting 'yes' or 'no' has burst into the very heart of Chavez's support base," Leon said in an interview. "We can see moderate Chavez backers ready to vote 'no' even though they like him."
Saturday's poll was the first Datanalisis survey in the campaign to project Chavez could lose. It also contrasted with the general trend of most other surveys taken earlier this month that have shown Chavez winning amid low turnout and despite widespread skepticism of his proposal.
MORE EXPECTED TO VOTE
Leon said the number of Venezuelans who say they will not vote has shrunk from a majority of voters to around 40 percent -- a change expected to boost the turnout of the opposition.
Chavez's plans also include establishing the No. 4 U.S. oil supplier as a socialist state and could allow him to pick favorites over regional elected officials, control currency reserves and censure the media if he declares an emergency.
The anti-U.S. leader stresses moves such as reducing the work day and expanding a pension system to street vendors.
Datanalisis is one of the most prestigious pollsters in Venezuela because of its record of predicting results of national votes. It conducts surveys on public opinion for businesses and government, and opposition-aligned groups.
The survey of 1,854 people, first published in the El Universal newspaper, was taken November 24-20 and had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.
Chavez won a landslide re-election against a fragmented opposition a year ago. He won with overwhelming support among poor Venezuelans who benefit from his free spending of record oil income on schools, clinics and subsidized food.
But he now faces an different political landscape.
A student movement has emerged to lead the anti-Chavez campaign, amplifying the condemnation from traditional opposition parties, the Roman Catholic church, rights groups and the defectors who say the reforms are authoritarian.
Chavez, who refuses to scrap term limits for other officials, would have to leave office in 2013 without the law change.
He urged Venezuelans to see vote as a referendum on him.
"It's black and white -- a vote against the reform is a vote against Chavez," he said in a state television interview.
But this year, Chavez has hurt his standing by shutting an opposition TV station and failing to end some food shortages.
Amanda Aguilar, 17, was in line at 5:30 a.m. waiting for a food store to open to buy her single, rationed carton of milk.
The student from Chavez's home-state of Barinas hopes the referendum will force him to change or force him out of office.
"All this lining up ends come December 2," she said.
(Additional reporting by Saul Hudson; Writing by Saul Hudson, editing by Vicki Allen)