Poll gives Venezuela’s Maduro clear lead ahead of 2018 presidential race

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro shows his finger stained in ink after casting his ballot during the ruling party’s primaries in Caracas, Venezuela, June 28, 2015.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro shows his finger stained in ink after casting his ballot during the ruling party’s primaries in Caracas, Venezuela, June 28, 2015. AP

Facing a divided and demoralized opposition, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would coast to an easy victory if snap elections were held, according to the closely watched Venebarometro poll released Tuesday.

The survey found that Maduro would win 28.6 percent of the vote, followed by Leopoldo López with 18 percent and former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles with 15.4 percent.

However, López is under house arrest and Capriles has been barred from participating in politics, making the point moot.

Two eligible candidates, former National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup and former Lara Gov. Henri Falcón would win 6.6 percent and 6.3 percent of the vote, respectively.

In a separate set of questions within the survey, Lorenzo Mendoza, the billionaire CEO of the Empresas Polar food company, also had strong polling numbers, putting him among the top 5 opposition candidates.

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Even so, the only way Maduro might pull off a victory is by keeping the opposition divided, said Edgard Gutiérrez, a political analyst with Croes, Gutiérrez & Asociados, which produces the survey.

“The message here is clear, if the opposition doesn’t unite they’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Maduro could win with less than a third of the vote.”

In addition, a full 25 percent of those surveyed said they were undecided.

The poll surveyed 1,200 people from late October through mid November — just after the ruling PSUV party swept the Oct. 15 governors’ race.

That electoral win also helped give Maduro a bump in the polls, with an approval rating of 31 percent — his highest level since April, 2015.

And while 75 percent of those surveyed thought the country is heading in the wrong direction, that’s also the smallest margin since 2015.

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The survey underscores how much ground the opposition has lost since earlier this year, when it had galvanized around daily street protests and Maduro’s approval ratings were in the single digits.

The first major split in the opposition came during the governors’ race, when some of the hardliners called for a boycott due to what they saw as the unfair playing field. The resulting weak turnout helped hand the PSUV 18 out of 23 seats.

The divisions only grew as a portion of the opposition coalition, known as the MUD, decided to engage in talks with the government in the Dominican Republic as others balked.

The first round of those talks ended over the weekend with no major breakthroughs. Opposition representatives are asking the administration to set a date for the presidential election, open up a “humanitarian channel” to bring food and medicine into the country and for the release of political prisoners, among other demands.

On Monday, the country’s Minister of Communications, Jorge Rodríguez, cast doubts on the election, saying it might not take place as long as U.S. financial sanctions are in place. However, he has also said he believes some sort of agreement is possible.

Many analysts think the administration will try to hold the vote as quickly as possible to capitalize on Maduro’s relative strength and the opposition disarray.

Gutiérrez said it remained to be seen if concessions at the negotiating table might give the opposition a boost. But for the moment, Maduro has them right where he wants them.

“The government needs the opposition to remain divided and demobilized,” he said.

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss