Venezuelan challenger Falcon aspires to vote upset

CARACAS (Reuters) - Striding a small stage in a poor hillside neighborhood of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, presidential aspirant Henri Falcon fulminates against hunger, malnutrition and hyperinflation under socialist rule.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan presidential candidate Henri Falcon of the Avanzada Progresista party, delivers a speech to supporters during a campaign rally in Caracas, Venezuela May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

“It’s time to tell Nicolas, the hunger candidate, ‘Go away!’ He is nothing but a nightmare for this country,” Falcon shouts of incumbent leftist leader Nicolas Maduro, who is favored to win the OPEC nation’s election on Sunday.

Yet despite Falcon’s personal energy and stirring words - plus the depth of Venezuela’s crisis - only a few hundred people turned up in the sprawling, working-class district of Petare at one of his last rallies. Organizers placed him in a narrow street, exaggerating the apparent size of the crowd.

In the most subdued election campaign in living memory, Maduro’s main rival has failed to ignite the masses or bring into his fold major opposition leaders, who are boycotting the vote on grounds it is rigged.

Two of the opposition’s biggest names - Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles - have been barred from running. The former is under house arrest, and the latter accused of misusing funds while a state governor.

Falcon has also failed to join forces with another presidential candidate, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, who has created a surprising stir on the street - not least with soup handouts - and could have lent him extra votes.

Opinion polls are mixed and unreliable given the probably lower-than-usual turnout. Some, however, still show the 56-year-old former soldier and state governor leading Maduro slightly.

But higher-than-normal abstention is likely to hurt Falcon, not to mention the government’s institutional advantages, including an election board run by loyalists and the flagrant use of state resources for campaigning.

“The result is a foregone conclusion. Maduro will buy, bully and cheat his way to victory,” said Nicholas Watson of Teneo Intelligence consultancy. “For Maduro, Falcon’s candidacy is a useful means to claw back some legitimacy.”

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There is fury by some in the mainstream opposition at Falcon for breaking ranks with their coalition and running. By so doing, he has undermined their strategy of making Maduro look foolish by running in an essentially one-man election.

“Henri Falcon decided to back the dictatorship,” the hard-line opposition Popular Will party carped recently on Twitter, accusing him of cutting a deal to be Maduro’s vice president in the next government.

Falcon’s campaign team has angrily denied the allegation.

So as well as battling Maduro, Falcon has been dedicating his campaign to fighting former opposition comrades.

“There’s no point in abstaining. If we vote, we defeat this government,” he exhorted supporters in Petare, making a point that polls back up: a majority want change.

“No one in their right mind can stand with their arms crossed during this crisis,” Falcon said. “This country cannot bear another six years of Maduro.”

Falcon supporters are deeply frustrated with the opposition split, saying Venezuelans may be giving up a golden opportunity to topple the Socialist Party’s nearly two-decade rule.

“People don’t like Maduro, but the fracture inside the opposition had done big damage. It’s a huge waste not to go into the election as a united bloc,” said Petare social worker Ingrid Palacios, 42, who supported Falcon at this week’s rally.

Some, though, still believe Falcon could spring a surprise on Sunday when voters are in the privacy of the ballot box, given the level of fury against Maduro over hyperinflation, food shortages and the growing exodus of young Venezuelans.

“Either we get rid of Maduro and ‘Chavismo,’ or we all die of hunger,” said Coromoto Martinez, 53, in the poor rural state of Barinas that was home to Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, her son left recently for the Colombian city of Medellin in search of a better future.

“I am voting for Falcon so my son can come home!”

Additional reporting by Francisco Aguilar in Barinas; editing by Girish Gupta and Jonathan Oatis