Venezuela's Chavez faces toughest vote test

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CARACAS, Nov 27 (Reuters) President Hugo Chavez faces his toughest vote to date this weekend in a referendum to scrap term limits on his rule as polls show Venezuelans shying away from the Cuba ally's drive for socialism in the OPEC nation.

Accustomed to easy election victories, Chavez enters the referendum vote on Sunday with surveys showing his lead eroding, dissent growing from ex-allies and diplomatic disputes intensifying with Spain and Colombia.

A man was shot dead yesterday as he tried to drive his truck through an area blocked by demonstrators protesting Chavez's raft of constitutional changes, the military said.

Chavez condemned the first death of the campaign as part of what he said was a media and US plan to stoke violence.

''If they choose the path of violence, then rest assured we will stand up to them in the streets and sweep them away,'' he said.

A defeat on Sunday could slow the advance of the firebrand leader. In office since 1999, he has become one of the world's staunchest critics of Washington and has nationalized foreign oil assets in a self-described socialist revolution.

Polls published in the last few days show a decline in support for the reforms, with one giving the ''No'' vote a 10 percentage point lead and another describing a technical tie in a reverse of previous surveys that had showed Chavez winning.

The reforms would remove limits on presidential re-election, give Chavez direct control over foreign currency reserves, expand his power to expropriate private property and allow for media censorship during political emergencies.

Even some of the majority poor who widely back Chavez's social spending programs worry about a concentration of presidential power, and discontent has grown over nagging shortages of basic food products like milk and eggs.

''All of these things are coming together, and it may well be that the accumulation of those factors is enough to push people into the ''No'' column,'' said Riordan Roett, head of Johns Hopkins University's Latin America program in Washington.

But pollsters say Chavez could still reverse the slide by activating a get-out-the-vote machine that has helped him win national votes on average once a year.

The unprecedented challenge for Chavez has stirred speculation over how the ex-soldier would react to defeat.

Opposition newspapers published theories over the weekend that he might persuade the courts to call off the vote or claim there is a coup attempt as an excuse to cancel the vote.

''SHUT UP'' In the build up to the vote, Chavez has heightened diplomatic spats, calling Colombia's president a liar and freezing ties with Spain until King Juan Carlos apologizes for telling him to ''shut up'' at a summit this month.

Chavez has tried to sweeten the contested reforms with measures to reduce the workday to six hours and expand social security benefits to include workers such as street vendors.

But Datanalisis, an independent polling company, said 49 percent of likely voters will vote ''No'' and 39 percent ''Yes''.

The opposition-linked Hinterlaces pollster released a tracking poll showing the two sides neck-and-neck.

The polls come only weeks after former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, who helped rescue Chavez from a botched 2002 putsch, dealt a strong blow to his reform campaign by calling it a ''coup.'' The second largest party of the president's coalition also broke ranks and criticized the proposals.

Religious leaders call the reform authoritarian.

Students have spearheaded street protests to show growing outcry over the reforms as opponents fret about Chavez backers already dominating Congress, the courts, the election authority and the state oil company in the No 4 supplier of crude oil to the United States.

Reuters AK VP0558

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