CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Astrong majority of Venezuelans plan to cast their ballots for PresidentHugo Chavez on Dec. 3, with most saying the fiery opponent of PresidentBush has handled government and foreign relations well, according to anAP-Ipsos poll that revealed deep divisions along class lines.
About 59 percent of likely voters said they wouldvote for Chavez for a third term, while 27 percent said they wouldsupport opposition candidate Manuel Rosales. Thirteen percent of thosesurveyed by the polling firm Ipsos for The Associated Press said theywere undecided or wouldn't answer.
Since Chavez was first elected in 1998, theleftist president has become perhaps Latin America's most controversialleader while gaining notoriety worldwide as an outspoken critic of theU.S. government.
At home, the poll showed, Venezuelans aregenerally content with the country's direction, with 61 percent of allrespondents saying Venezuela is moving in the right direction and 31percent saying it's on the wrong track.
The survey found sharp differences in votingpreference depending on income. The wealthiest likely voters solidlysupported Rosales, while the middle class appeared split and thepoorest overwhelmingly backed Chavez over Rosales - 70 percent to 16percent.
Overall, 63 percent said they approve of Chavez'sadministration, although 66 percent said they see Chavez asauthoritarian. Chavez is a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, butan overwhelming 84 percent said they oppose adopting a political systemlike Cuba's - and that view cut across class lines.
The survey was carried out Nov. 10-18 among 2,500registered voters interviewed face-to-face at their homes, including1,500 determined by the pollsters to be likely voters based on theiranswers and historical turnout levels. It had a margin of error of plusor minus 2 percentage points for results among registered voters, and 3points for likely voters.
Despite Chavez's often bombastic style, includinga recent speech to the United Nations in which he called Bush "thedevil," 59 percent said they approve of Chavez's handling ofinternational relations.
A majority, 63 percent, saidthey have a negative view of Bush, while 55 percent expressed anunfavorable view of the United States in general. Fewer - 44 percent -had an unfavorable view of American people, compared with 48 percentwho had a positive view of Americans.
A huge majority, 79 percent, said they considerthe political system in Venezuela at least somewhat democratic, thoughthat majority was smaller for the middle class and the wealthy than forthe poorest. And 46 percent said there seems to be less freedom inVenezuela today than in the past.
Chavez has increasingly dominated Venezuelanpolitics since he was first elected nearly eight years ago. In 1999, heoversaw constitutional reforms that triggered new elections, and heeasily secured a six-year term in 2000.
Overall, only 44 percent were very confident thatvotes would be counted accurately and only 42 percent were veryconfident their votes would be kept secret. Rosales supporters weremuch less confident in the process.
A full 57 percent of respondents were at leastsomewhat concerned that people could face reprisals for how they vote -79 percent of Rosales supporters and 46 percent of Chavez supporters.Such a fear factor is a potential source of survey error, meaning forinstance that some respondents might feel afraid to tell an interviewerthey support Rosales.
The poll offered contrasting assessments ofChavez himself. Sixty percent saw him as confrontational, while 48percent thought he put his personal political interests above those ofVenezuela. On the other hand, 64 percent said he solves people'sproblems and 59 percent described him as a good administrator.
A considerable number, 47 percent, said Chavezshould cut back on his televised speeches, which he makes nearly everyday, often going on for hours. Forty-four percent said they believe hemakes the right amount of speeches.
Chavez is less popular with people in the middleclass, 56 percent of whom rated him positively, as compared with 80percent among the poorest.
Chavez got his highest marks overall for hishandling of education, with 75 percent approval, and health, 74percent, and his lowest marks for his handling of corruption and crime- 45 percent and 34 percent, respectively. Violent crime is common, andChavez's opponents accuse him of doing little to fight endemiccorruption.
Crime stood out as Venezuelans' top concern: 67percent called it one of the most important problem facing the country,with unemployment in second place. Venezuela's jobless rate officiallystands at just under 9 percent, but 23 percent of those polleddescribed themselves as unemployed.
Venezuelans disagreed over their country'sfuture, with 37 percent favoring a socialist economic system, 22percent favoring capitalism and 33 percent preferring a mix of the two.
Although Chavez has sought increasingly closeties with Cuba and Iran, the poll suggested only limited support forthose initiatives.
Opinion was split on Castro, with 44 percentexpressing negative views and 42 percent positive. Respondents splitevenly when asked whether they viewed Cuba favorably as a country. Andonly 28 percent had a favorable view of Chavez's close ally Iran -fewer than the 37 percent who thought favorably of the U.S.
Fifty-one percent saw the United States as a military threat to Venezuela - as Chavez does - while 44 percent didn't.
The poll found a parallel between support forChavez and seeing benefits from his oil-funded social programs, whichrange from free health care by Cuban doctors to heavily subsidizedgovernment grocery stores.
Sixty-eight percent of likely voters who havebenefited from at least one of the programs, or who know someone whohas, said they'd vote for Chavez, compared with 23 percent of those whohaven't. While the poor are most likely to see benefits from theprograms, the correlation holds true across class lines.
Associated Press polling director Mike Mokrzycki and manager of news surveys Trevor Tompson contributed to this report.
The complete questionnaire and results, in English and Spanish, are available at: http://www.ap-ipsosresults.com
© 2006 The Associated Press.