(AP) — A prominent Venezuelan politician broke ranks with the opposition coalition on Tuesday by challenging leader Nicolas Maduro in the upcoming presidential election.
Henri Falcon, a former governor and retired military officer, became the only major politician so far to take on socialist President Maduro, who leads the oil-rich country beset by a historic economic and political crisis. A little-known television evangelist, the Rev. Javier Bertucci, has said he will also run against Maduro.
Filing his election papers, Falcon called Maduro the “candidate of hunger,” highlighting the shortages of food residents suffer in what was once among Latin America’s wealthiest countries.
“We are going to win. We are sure of it,” Falcon said. “People are suffering, but they will rise.”
Officials loyal to Maduro recently approved the presidential vote for April 22 — a far earlier date than usual — after the breakdown of negotiations with the opposition over the electoral process.
The United States and several of Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors criticized the move, saying conditions for a fair election are lacking.
Javier Corrales, a professor of Latin American politics at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said Falcon’s decision may cause tension among opposition politicians, but it will have no practical downside for them.
“If Falcon loses — and he probably will — the opposition will be able to say there were irregularities,” Corrales said. “If he wins, it will be a collective good for the opposition.”
A coalition of some 20 opposition parties has said it refuses to participate until the government takes steps to ensure the vote is fair and transparent.
Opposition lawmaker Simon Calzadilla said the coalition’s demand for more electoral guarantees remains firm, despite Falcon’s decision. Calzadilla accused the government of continuing to commit “flagrant violations” of the electoral process.
Falcon consultant Eduardo Semtei said, however, that Falcon’s challenge is justified by concessions such as the government decision to allow international election observers.
“It’s a fact and a right,” said Semtei, confirming Falcon’s run to The Associated Press.
The overall coalition is demanding more extensive changes, including delaying the vote and lifting bans on the most popular political parties and candidates. It also wants guarantees that Venezuelans living abroad can vote.
Falcon once served as a top aide to the late President Hugo Chavez, but he later broke with the socialist party and joined the opposition, heading the minority Advanced Progressive party.
At least one poll taken early this month by the Datanalisis firm showed that Falcon leads Maduro by 53 to 47 percent. The survey of 800 people had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Maduro, who declared his candidacy weeks ago, submitted his papers with the national election officials on Tuesday, formalizing his campaign.
State television showed Maduro riding through downtown Caracas streets to the election headquarters in the back of a red pickup surrounded by a sea of supporters waving flags.
A confident Maduro urged the opposition coalition to enter the race — personally naming Falcon.
“I have his answer,” Maduro said. “Join the race, compadre, and let’s take it to the street. We’ll take it to a public presidential debate.”
Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, but the state run oil firm’s production of crude has plunged under nearly two decades of socialist rule.
The crisis has gotten more dire, with thousands of Venezuelans enduring shortages of food and medicine fleeing to neighboring countries.