The man who would be Venezuela’s next president — if he can get people to vote

Only one significant challenger has stepped up to run against Venezuela’s powerful President Nicolás Maduro and his vast political machine in elections next month. But former governor Henri Falcón’s biggest challenge may be getting people to believe that voting could make a difference.

Maduro’s increasingly tight grip on Venezuela’s politics amid a catastrophic economic crisis has prompted the opposition coalition to boycott the upcoming vote. The group’s leaders are criticizing Falcón, a 56-year-old politician, who was once a ruling party supporter, for participating in what they maintain is a sham vote.

The polls, however, show that Falcón has a fighting chance — if he can get people to vote. A March survey by the firm Datanalisis indicated 75 percent of the adult population rejects Maduro and that Falcón was leading him by 10 points. That same poll, however, showed that only 28 percent of the people opposing Maduro plan to vote.

Other polls say voters distrust the process so much that turnout will be lower than in any other presidential election since the rise of late president Hugo Chávez two decades ago.

“What does boycotting the vote offer hungry Venezuelans who want change? What happens the day after elections?” Falcón told The Washington Post in an interview. “Abstaining neutralizes people. Participating mobilizes them.”

So in the weeks before the May 20 election, Falcón has hit the streets to persuade people to participate in the election and vote out Maduro.

In the eastern city of El Tigre, some 200 miles from Caracas, hundreds waited for him in an impoverished neighborhood one recent day, shouting “Please don’t abandon the poor” and “We’re dying; help us.”

“Socialism is hunger,” he shouted back at the crowd after shaking hands with men and kissing women’s cheeks. “Let’s get the dirty men out of power. Please, if we vote, we win!”

With an inflation rate set to top 13,000 percent in 2018, Venezuela is disintegrating in a crisis worse than America’s Great Depression in the 1930s. This once-affluent country has been crippled by a massive debt, a drop in oil prices and years of economic mismanagement by the socialist government. Food and medicine are scarce.

Malnutrition is rising, and patients are dying in crumbling hospitals, while thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the country.

Given the extent of the crisis and Maduro’s unpopularity, the opposition could win plenty of votes in a clean election. But the coalition’s leaders cite several reasons they believe the election won’t be fair: The electoral commission overseeing the process is firmly under government control; well-known opposition leaders have been jailed on what many consider dubious charges or barred from holding public office; and indications of fraud have emerged in previous elections.

Falcón, nonetheless, presses on.

His proposals include creating incentives to reactivate industrial and agricultural production, dollarizing the economy to stop hyperinflation, and giving out $25 monthly stipends to the poor during a stabilization period. He says he’ll free political prisoners but won’t persecute current officials.

He describes himself as at the center of the political spectrum, “leaning to the left but open to initiatives from any side if they’ll help the country recover.”

His economic adviser, Francisco Rodríguez, chief economist at the Wall Street investment bank Torino Capital, says the candidate wants to expand social services, restructure the country’s debt and open the country to foreign aid. The Maduro government has rejected most offers of international humanitarian assistance.

“I don’t think there’s a big difference between the country we picture and the one pictured by the part of the opposition that doesn’t want to participate in elections,” Rodríguez told The Washington Post recently. “The difference is the strategy.”

Many people watching Falcón walk through an outdoor market in El Tigre said they didn’t expect elections to be clean but that voting was their only option. “What do I do, stay home? And continue living like this?” said Maria Jimenez, a 58-year-old housekeeper.

But some said it was useless. “Why am I going to bother if Maduro will win anyway?” said Mariana Urbaneja, a 38-year-old baker.

The opposition coalition says that participating in a “fraudulent” process would only legitimize the vote.

Falcón, who has been thrown out of the coalition and is only supported by three small parties, admits that the playing field is uneven. It can also be dangerous.

This week, Falcón’s campaign entourage was met with violence during a visit to the Caracas slum of Catia. A group of men attacked Falcón’s team, injuring one person, a legislator, in the head. Falcón later accused pro-government paramilitary groups, or colectivos, of being behind the incident. “The violence and the bad way this government does politics is what we have to defeat,” he tweeted.

Maduro denied government supporters were behind it, noting that authorities had opened an investigation and detained 17 people. “They could be infiltrators paid by the right,” the president said, speaking of the assailants.

Falcón used to be a friend of Chávez when they were in graduate school in the late 1990s. After Chávez became president and started implementing socialist-oriented policies, Falcón joined his“Bolivarian Revolution” and went on to become a lawmaker, a two-term mayor of the city of Barquisimeto and finally governor of the state of Lara in 2008.

In 2010, though, he broke with the ruling party when Chávez attempted to nationalize Polar, the country’s main food-processing company.

Falcón joined the opposition and won reelection in 2012. He was the campaign manager in 2013 for presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro by a sliver of the vote.

Some in the opposition cite Falcón’s background in saying that he’s a government crony and is only running to give the elections a facade of legitimacy.

Falcón’s election strategy includes winning over “independent” voters that don’t like either Maduro or the opposition coalition. Such voters make up about 40 percent of the population, said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Datanalisis polling agency.

“But half of the ‘independents’ don’t want to vote at this point,” Leon said. “Falcón’s enemy isn’t Maduro or people’s preferences. It’s abstentionism.”

It’s possible that Falcón really thinks he can win, said Félix Seijas Rodríguez, director of the Delphos polling agency, but there’s also a chance he’s simply taking advantage of the situation to position himself as a leading opposition figure.

There is one note of uncertainty over Falcón’s candidacy: He has said he would withdraw from the race if certain minimum conditions aren’t met — including the presence of a credible international monitoring group. So far, no such organization has publicly committed to observing the election.

Representatives of Maduro and Falcón traveled to U.N. headquarters last month to ask the organization to send experts for the vote. But the United Nations does not intend to do so, according to a recent story by the Associated Press, quoting an unidentified U.N. official.

Falcón said he’s waiting to see if the European Union or other international organizations are willing to help.

Meanwhile, in his speeches, he is begging people to believe in his candidacy.

“For God’s sake, people,” he said in an afternoon meeting with unions in El Tigre, “let’s avoid any more mistakes. Abstaining is a meaningless path against a dictatorial government.”

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