At each other’s throats for two decades, militants of Venezuela’s socialist state and opposition seldom agree on anything. Yet mention the name of Venezuelan presidential candidate Henri Falcon, and both are liable to spit.
“Traitor!” cry socialist stalwarts, who cannot forgive the former state governor for breaking with their beloved late leader Hugo Chavez in 2010. “Chavista lite!” say opposition campaigners, always suspicious that Falcon came into their ranks as a Trojan horse.
Now that the 56-year-old former soldier is running for president in a May 20 election, both groups are united in scoffing at his chances.
After all, Falcon is up against not just Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, but also an election system widely considered unfair and an opposition boycott that would deprive him of votes.
And yet, a clutch of opinion polls show Falcon ahead, bolstering his campaign mantra that he is a natural transition candidate with appeal to a moderate majority fed up with political polarization and economic chaos.
Widely followed pollster Datanalisis, for example, put him more than 10 percentage points ahead in voter intentions.
“This government is finished,” Falcon told reporters, saying that few governments in history survived hyperinflation and economic chaos as seen during Venezuela’s ongoing crisis.
Opinion polls in Venezuela are often divergent, politicized and misleading in hindsight, but Falcon, his campaign team and some pundits think he might be able to create an avalanche as the campaign gets underway.
“If we really unite, get organized, construct a single narrative, and instead of discouraging people by asking them to abstain, we call them to vote, there’s no way this government can beat us,” Falcon said.
Despite such optimism and Maduro’s unpopularity on the streets, there appear to be plenty of ways for the government to assure victory.
It is ratcheting up welfare handouts and pressure on state workers, has skillfully fomented divisions within the opposition, barred Maduro’s two main rivals from standing, brazenly uses state resources in its campaigns and benefits from a compliant election board.
Board head Tibisay Lucena is on US, EU and Canadian sanctions lists, accused of violating democracy. Even the board’s chosen vote machine operator, UK-based Smartmatic, accused her institution of fraud in a vote last year.
“Though Falcon is twice as popular as Maduro and could beat him in a competitive race, the 20 May vote will not be competitive,” consultancy Eurasia Group wrote.
In line with his promise of a government of “national unity,” Falcon is reaching out to opposition leaders, such as former Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, to relax the boycott and join his campaign.
He has picked a Wall Street bank analyst, Francisco Rodriguez, to head his economic team and, in a nod to his former allies in the ruling “Chavismo” movement and a signal to the armed forces that they need not fear him, Falcon might keep Venezuelan Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino should he win, a campaign aide said.
However, to win, Falcon needs to convince voters in places such as La Vega, a poor hillside “barrio” of Caracas that is a traditional “Chavista” stronghold.
At a bread shop there, chatter revolved around impossibly high food prices and the growing migration of Venezuelans to Colombia. There was next to no enthusiasm either for Falcon or Maduro.
“I want to vote to change this disaster! But there are no good candidates,” said Jose Sanchez, 25, an internet cafe worker whose minimum monthly wage — less than US$2 at the black market rate — does not even cover diapers for his twin babies.
“Let’s see if Falcon has changed since his Chavista days. I suppose I might vote for him, but only to get rid of Maduro,” said Sanchez, who voted for the opposition in the past few elections.
Driver Gustavo Isturiz, 56, said he voted for the government in multiple polls since Chavez won office in 1998, but was fed up with rising penury.
“Hunger is pummeling our stomachs, but the opposition still has no chance,” he said. “I can’t go over to them until a good candidate appears. I don’t like Henri Falcon: He has no political project and he’s not inspiring hope.”
Some in La Vega’s winding streets said they were so reliant on state handouts that they would not dare to vote against Maduro for fear officials would see their ballot and cancel their benefits.
Falcon, whose energy is evident in his daily pre-dawn jogs, plans to start street campaigning in the next few days. He has vowed to keep popular welfare benefits, but also open Venezuela’s economy along more business-friendly lines.
Rodriguez has recommended dollarizing the economy, seeking US$15 billion to US$20 billion in annual foreign funding, lowering taxes for oil investors and dismantling currency controls.
Falcon faces a tough job persuading Western nations to withdraw their objections to the May 20 vote.
The US has been vociferous, threatening to extend sanctions on the Maduro government to hit the oil sector if it goes ahead with what critics are calling a “coronation” on May 20.
US Charge d’Affaires in Venezuela Todd Robinson recently met with Falcon, trying to persuade him to withdraw, as his challenge was undermining US efforts to isolate Maduro, sources close to the candidate said.
Washington appears to be calculating that if Maduro scores a Pyrrhic victory and is left governing a ravaged economy, military and social pressure will become unbearable.
“If Maduro wins, as looks likely, it will be a very unstable government,” Caracas-based consultant Dimitris Pantoulas said. “At home, he is flirting with a coup d’etat and abroad he will be a pariah.”
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