Venezuela's Chavez faces opposition from own ranks

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CARACAS, Nov 19 (Reuters) Used to trouncing the opposition at the ballot box, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez suddenly faces a new foe for a December referendum on scrapping term limits -- high-profile disaffected supporters.

An allied political party, a respected ex-defense minister, governors and a top legislator have all abandoned Chavez's socialist coalition helping amplify the opposition's criticism that his plan to revamp the constitution is authoritarian.

The defections reflect misgivings among Chavez's majority poor supporters, who still back his oil-financed social development crusade but worry the Cuba ally wants too much power as he brooks little dissent in the OPEC nation.

''We've seen so-called 'group-think' develop. In other words, if you do not think like me, you are a traitor, you are with the CIA, you are a coup plotter,'' said Ismael Garcia of the Podemos party, which split from Chavez's self-styled ''revolution'' over the reform package.

Polls show the anti-US leader should win the Dec. 2 vote but that it will be due to low opposition turnout, his personal approval ratings and sweeteners in the package such as reducing the workday and expanding social security benefits.

Victory would consolidate his power. But it would not be because his supporters show great enthusiasm for constitutional changes such as allowing him to run for office indefinitely, control foreign reserves and limit freedoms in ''emergencies.'' Those major reforms are rejected by the opposition, university students, rights groups, the Roman Catholic church and, according to most pollsters, a majority of Venezuelans.

SCORPIONS NEST A student movement that briefly sprang up in May when Chavez closed an opposition TV station has also reemerged as the main voice against the reforms, organizing rallies and supplanting traditional parties.

Chavez says the legal overhaul will boost democracy by also empowering local councils, which will manage central government money to bring water or electricity to their communities as he seeks to spread the No. 4 U.S. oil supplier's income.

But ex-stalwarts of his ''21st century socialism'' disagree. And they may become a center-left challenge to an increasingly radical president as the political landscape he faces evolves.

Former Defense Minister Raul Isaias Baduel, a Chavez confidant who rescued him from a military putsch in 2002, called the constitutional reform this month a ''coup.'' Chavez dismissed him as a traitor but also acknowledged the rift made him feel like he was sitting on a nest of scorpions.

Lawmaker Luis Tascon was so militant in the president's cause, he drew up a blacklist of millions of anti-Chavez voters that some say cost them their public sector jobs.

But Tascon says he was ejected from Chavez's party after he said it was ''royally stupid'' to deny that Baduel's criticism exposed divisions and hurt the government.

''We have to look at ... how we are using power,'' he said.

VOTE WIN, POLITICAL DEFEAT? That call for self-reflection jarred in a nation where political analysts say a Chavez personality cult often makes supporters blindly follow the man they call ''El Comandante.'' A pro-Chavez legislator, who asked not to be named to avoid reprisals, said: ''Some lawmakers might be against some of the president's policies or statements. But there is fear, terror of being considered a traitor, a traitor to the revolution.'' Chavez led a failed 1992 coup but was elected in 1998. Decimating traditional opposition parties, he has comfortably won national votes at an average of almost one a year, including a landslide re-election 12 months ago.

Chavez may be headed for another vote victory -- but this time there has already been a political cost.

''For the first time, it's going to feel to the government like it's a defeat,'' Garcia said.

REUTERS RSA KN2149

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