Approval of Venezuelan leader drops as crisis bites: poll

CARACAS (Reuters) - Just over one in four Venezuelans approves of President Nicolas Maduro’s governance as a crippling economic crisis weighs on the leftist leader, according to a leading pollster.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during his weekly broadcast "en contacto con Maduro" (In contact with Maduro), in Margarita Island, Venezuela May 3, 2016. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS.

Venezuelans are suffering rampant shortages of products including bread and antibiotics, salary-destroying inflation, and increasingly frequent power and water cuts as the OPEC country’s state-led model flounders.

Maduro, whom the opposition is vying to remove from office this year, saw his rating drop to 26.8 percent in March from 33.1 percent in February, according to a Datanalisis poll seen by Reuters.

While low compared with his charismatic mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s popularity remains above that of neighboring presidents including Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff.

Still, some 68.9 percent of Venezuelans polled said Maduro should quit this year or be removed via a recall referendum before his term ends in 2019, up from 63.6 percent in February.

The Democratic Unity coalition has ramped up its push to oust the 53-year-old former bus driver and union leader and this week cleared one of the first hurdles towards holding a recall referendum.

Some 57.3 percent of Venezuelans said in March they would vote to remove him from office should a referendum be called, up from 52.1 percent in February, the survey showed.

The opposition says the only way to avoid an impending economic or humanitarian disaster in Venezuela is to push out Maduro, whom they say is unwilling to correct Venezuela’s economic distortions.

Maduro has scoffed at plans to remove him and ridiculed his political rivals as divided, coup-mongering elitists.

Having narrowly won a 2013 election, Maduro initially benefited from reverence towards his predecessor Chavez and the popularity of social welfare programs.

But that has waned as many poor “Chavista” supporters bear the brunt of the economic crisis.

Since Maduro took over, the bolivar has fallen around 98 percent against the dollar on the black market rate. Annual inflation is in triple-digits.

Polls in Venezuela are notoriously divergent and controversial, but Datanalisis has become the most closely watched by both sides.

The survey of 1,000 people was conducted from March 4 to 14 has a 3.04 percent margin of error.

Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Sandra Maler