(Bloomberg) -- Henri Falcon’s campaign to unseat Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro is a dangerous slog.
First, government loyalists beat a top deputy so badly that doctors induced a coma to prevent brain damage. Then, Falcon canceled two of six stops in the country’s vast west amid the ensuing disarray. Pilots refuse to fly him. One-time allies boycotting the May 20 presidential election scorn him. In a nation where mass marches are the heart of politics, his rallies draw small crowds fringed by skeptical onlookers.
“Winners don’t withdraw,” Falcon said in his campaign bus before an appearance last week in the decrepit manufacturing hub of Maracay.
But just six weeks before the vote, many Venezuelans question its very relevance. Maduro’s socialist government has been sanctioned and isolated after accusations of dirty tricks at the polls, and has barred top opponents from office. He has allowed the military to extend its profitable grip on the economy even as hunger and hyperinflation wrack the masses. And former allies have accused Falcon of providing the autocrat with a public-relations coup: a pantomime democracy.
Opinion polls overwhelming give Falcon a commanding lead; a recent survey by Caracas pollster Datanalisis said he held an almost 10 point advantage over Maduro, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci and three minor candidates. Even so, many analysts caution available data fail to accurately predict an election denounced as a sham at home and abroad.
Last week, in an effort to whip up votes in Venezuela’s industrial belt, Falcon led an entourage of dozens of followers and a brass band through Maracay’s cramped market. Salsa music blared as he hugged unsuspecting shoppers. “Are you going to vote?” Falcon called out to stall owners. “If we vote, we win!”
But many opposition stalwarts like Ivana Sivoli, a 32-year-old administrative assistant, say they’ve resigned themselves to sitting out the vote. “No member of the opposition can force this government out,” she said, watching the marketplace cacophony unamused.
Venezuela’s main opposition alliance seems to agree. The coalition of more than a dozen parties is boycotting the ballot after the government failed to accede to a list of demands — including restaffing a pliant electoral authority and granting more time for primaries — and expelled Falcon for participating.
Falcon, 56, previously the governor of Lara state, is the son of a farmer and a teacher. He presents himself as best suited to pull the nation from ruin. A lawyer and former military man who broke ranks with the late President Hugo Chavez in 2010, he continued in power until last year.
He lost his second re-election bid in 2017, when the regime swept most states despite opinion polls that widely predicted an opposition landslide. Maduro’s allies were dogged by accusations of foul play from moving polling stations at the last minute to outright ballot-box stuffing.
“The electoral conditions are not optimal, but the political conditions are,’’ Falcon said as he toured Maracay, about 76 miles (122 kilometers) outside Caracas.
Amid quadruple-digit inflation, children are dying of malnutrition, hunger is hobbling the petrostate’s oil industry and thousands of Venezuelans are pouring over the borders. In Maracay, the crisis was on painful display near the market. Hungry residents picked through trash outside shuttered businesses and idled factories, while weary onlookers watched the candidate from winding supermarket lines.
Steffany Ventura, 28, packed into a muggy Maracay auditorium as Falcon railed against the consequences of expropriations and mismanagement in the once-bustling city. Seven months pregnant, she said voting would provide a better future for her children. “I’m convinced,” Ventura said, cradling her belly. “But many aren’t, and if he doesn’t convince them soon, things are only going to get worse.”
In press conferences, Falcon shuffles through clippings and opinion surveys. He references tables showing sliding oil production and figures for his plans to improve salaries and living conditions.
Falcon and adviser Francisco Rodriguez, until recently the chief economist at boutique investment firm Torino Capital, are pushing a plan to dollarize Venezuela’s moribund economy — swapping the worthless bolivar for the greenback, as Ecuador and El Salvador have done.
They would unwind years of byzantine currency controls and provide monthly subsidies to offset the adjustment. Falcon pledges a “grand national dialogue” and to ensure a transition to democracy. He has offered to work with certain government officials and even suggested an amnesty to those accused of wrongdoing in a nation where corruption, violence and repression are the handmaidens of politics.
The most popular opposition figures — activist Leopoldo Lopez and two-time presidential contender Henrique Capriles — are banned from the ballot. Lopez is under house arrest on charges of inciting violence when he led protests in 2014, while Venezuela’s comptroller general barred Capriles from running last year for “administrative irregularities” during his time as governor of Miranda state.
Many Maduro opponents question why Falcon would recognize the regime’s legitimacy in the face of such repression. Some suggest he is using his candidacy only to burnish his image.
Andres Velasquez, a former governor of Bolivar state who said he was robbed in last year’s election, said it’s impossible to have a clean vote and Falcon shouldn’t participate.
“Everyone is asking him to reconsider, but if he doesn’t do it I can only conclude there are other interests at play,” Velasquez said. “It’s a bad calculation; he’s mistaken. It’s exactly the opposite. They’re going to wipe the floor with him.”
But Falcon said that faced with the prospect of six more years of Maduro, Venezuelans will heed his call. “It’s a matter of survival,” he said. “Abstention takes us into nothingness.”
The nation may already be there. After repeatedly failing to dislodge Maduro and his allies through street protests or the ballot box, Venezuelans have increasingly given up on change, said Collete Capriles, a political-science professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas who has advised the opposition coalition. (She is not related to Henrique Capriles.)
“There is a sense that politics no longer have an effect on everyday life,” she said. The government’s major victory has been installing a system that “has eroded votes to bureaucratic paperwork.”
In Maracay, Falcon pounded the pavement in poor neighborhood on the outskirts. The slum’s walls were marked by faded graffiti denouncing corruption in the military. After leading a crowd numbering in the few hundreds through winding streets, Falcon climbed on a sound truck and declared the day a “complete success.”
Carlos Acosta, 67, a trucker, watched from afar. Out of work and skipping meals, Acosta said he badly wanted change. Still, he worried supporting Falcon might simply be “throwing away a vote.”
“It’s not that his ideas are bad, but he’s just one man and you can’t beat this government alone,” Acosta said.
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