Venezuela's Falcon runs against Maduro for presidency, defying opposition

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan politician Henri Falcon on Tuesday defied a call by the country's political opposition to boycott an April presidential election and said he would run against President Nicolas Maduro.

"The government promised a paradise to millions of Venezuelans, but they gave them a hell," Falcon told reporters.

He called Maduro the "hunger candidate" in reference to an economic crisis that has brought a crippling recession, widespread shortages and an exodus of migrants from the oil-producing country.

The opposition coalition is boycotting the April 22 election because its two most popular leaders - Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles - are prohibited from running, various parties have been outlawed and the election board is pro-Maduro.

Falcon defended his decision, saying he operates independently of the opposition coalition Democratic Unity. The opposition, which considers the vote a farce meant to consolidate Maduro's power, accused him of trying to grab the spotlight.

Maduro formally presented his candidacy for the vote at the national election board in Caracas before joining a rally of supporters.

"I will be loyal to the legacy of the giant Hugo Chavez!" he said, dancing reggaeton on stage with his wife, Cilia Flores, before a large banner depicting him and Chavez, his predecessor as president.

Before Falcon's announcement, Maduro faced just one confirmed candidate, a little-known evangelical pastor named Javier Bertucci.

Although once seen as a possible transition figure after nearly two decades of socialist rule, Falcon, 56, has little chance of defeating Maduro.

A former stalwart of the ruling Chavismo movement, Falcon, a former mayor and state governor, defected from the governing Socialist Party in 2010. Many government supporters view him as a traitor for abandoning the party, while members of the opposition view his roots with suspicion.

"Elections in these conditions will not solve anything," the coalition said in a statement. Falcon called on authorities to delay the election to a date when its result would be more credible.

In his speech, Maduro urged opponents not to be "cowards" and stand against him, saying they were only boycotting the vote because they were scared of losing.

Maduro said he hoped his campaign would be blessed by Jesus Christ, Chavez and Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar.

"I am the people's president, the oligarchy have under-estimated me," said Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist.

Falcon's decision to break with the opposition coalition’s boycott of the April 22 vote means he will not be able to count on it to mobilize voters, and grassroots opposition backers are likely to be alienated.

Falcon, a former military officer, styles himself a center-leftist, seeking to combine business-friendly economic policies with strong social welfare programs.

Maduro narrowly won election after Chavez's 2013 death from cancer but has seen his popularity plunge during the economic crisis. Maduro has blamed a U.S.-led "economic war," including financial sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump.

Critics have said that incompetent policies, such as dysfunctional currency and price controls, and rampant graft are behind the crisis. The United States has said Venezuela's election plan is undemocratic, and it and Colombia have said the results will not be accepted as legitimate.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Ana Isabel Martinez, Corina Pons and Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia Osterman)

02/27/2018 21:16

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