Is the glass two-thirds full…

…or one-third empty? As Cesar Miguel Rondón – Venezuela’s fat, balding version of Larry King – kept insisting on his Channel 10 show last night, the polling data has been remarkably steady over the last 10 months or so. Two out of three Venezuelans are broadly opposed to the government, one out of three supports it. According to Datanalisis’ quarterly polls, the numbers haven’t changed much, except for a short-lived “sympathy spike” right after The Restoration on April 14th. Whether you ask people whether they like or dislike Chávez or whether they’d vote to unseat him in a referendum, the two-to-one pattern holds up. Moreover, two-thirds of respondents consistently oppose the institutions that are most widely seen as controlled by Chávez (Congress, the Attorney General’s Office, the Ombudsman’s Office, etc.), and one-third supports them.

I’m sure most chavistas would dismiss Datanalisis’ numbers as part of the giant conspiracy against the revolution, but then they think anything and everything that’s the least bit out-of-synch with the guy’s latest whim is part of the giant conspiracy against the revolution. Certainly, we heard no complaints from them between December 1998 and November 2001, when Datanalisis’ polls had the Comandante in the 60-85% popularity range.

Interestingly, support for the Supreme Tribunal followed that same two-to-one pattern until August 14th, when the magistrates voted 12-8 to exonerate the army officers who’d shoved Chávez out of power in April, unleashing a storm of presidential condemnation. Chávez’ could barely contain the bile he poured all over the Tribunal, repeatedly saying the decision had been bought, calling it “a turd” (una plasta) and at one point, ominously, vowing to publish a book with the photographs of the magistrates who’d voted against his wishes “so the people knew who was responsible for this outrage.” It should probably worry the president’s supporters that the Supreme Tribunal’s standing in the polls shot up immediately after this particular tirade, with more and more people saying they see it as a genuinely independent institution, and fewer and fewer people calling for the magistrates’ resignation. In fact, the Supreme Tribunal became the first institution to fall out of the two-thirds/one-third pattern. The change happened almost immediately after Chávez’ set of bombastic condemnatory speeches. The Supreme Tribunal is now liked by a third and disliked by another third of the electorate, leaving the third third bewildered. I count myself in that third-third: we’ve heard lots of reports that the August “majority” against Chávez was a one time fluke, and that the magistrates are now falling back in line behind the president. If so, Chávez’s attacks could imaginably have been a shrewd maneuver to bolster the tribunal’s appearance of independence (and therefore its standing) through a single high-profile decision, only to then bring it back as a meek member of the presidential herd.

The other place where the two-to-one ratio falls apart is in the hypothetical presidential match-ups. When Datanalisis asks the open-ended question, Chávez wins of course. He gets thirtysomething percent, while the opposition vote is fractioned among like 15 challengers. But when Datanalisis limits the question to Chávez vs. this or that hypothetical challenger, his weakness becomes clear. His strongest challengers would be Enrique Salas-Römer and Enrique Mendoza: both would beat him 61%-39%. That’s a landslide in my book, even if it’s not the two-to-one majority you see in the popularity questions. Salas-Römer is the right-wing former governor of Carabobo State, who lost the ’98 election against Chávez by…58-39% (with the remainder going to minor candidates, including the former beauty-queen I voted for.) Mendoza, on the other hand, is a far more moderate centrist who is now governor of Miranda State, which is the state where I live and where the Eastern half of Caracas sits. Other opposition figures also beat Chávez, but by smaller margins. Greater Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña beats him 54%-46%, former Central Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma barely ekes by 51%-49%. That’s too close for comfort, so the opposition would really do well to stick by one of the Enriques.

Yet, even if the opposition doesn’t manage to agree on a single candidate, it’s not necessarily the end of the world. Even in a worst-case-scenario where both the Enriques chose to run, chances are that the election would tend to get polarized between just one of them and Chávez. Getting an early poll-lead would be the key: once voters saw which way the wind was blowing, they’d almost certainly coalesce around whichever candidate they saw as having the best chance to beat Chávez. The other Enrique would be condemned to the fate of my beauty-queen, who saw her poll-numbers drop literally 60 points between May and December. My feeling then is that if the opposition can just force an election somehow, they take Chávez out. This seems to be Chávez’s theory as well: he’s doing everything imaginable to avoid one.

And it’s critical that Chávez is replaced through an election. Aside from all the valid idealistic reasons for demanding democratic decision-making, the fact is that he does retain the support of a third of the population. Much more relevantly, he maintains the fervent support of about 20% of the electorate, the so-called chavistas duros (hard-core chavistas) who see him more as a mystical figure than a politician. If Chávez is pushed out of office unconstitutionally, by force, these people will never accept the outcome. At best, they’d be a constant thorn on the side of the next government, at worst they could start a civil war. It worries me that the most radicalized opposition figures out there don’t seem to realize how much of a problem this is, and continue to push for extra-constitutional means of getting rid of the guy. Making sure that 20% feels included – or at least doesn’t feel openly violated – by the transition to the post-chavista era will probably be the most important task of the next government. Let’s hope they don’t screw it up.