Chavista-defector Falcon to run against Maduro in…

CARACAS, Feb 27 (Reuters) – Former Venezuelan state governor Henri Falcon launched his candidacy on Tuesday to run in an April 22 election against President Nicolas Maduro, upending opposition hopes that Maduro would stand alone.

Falcon, a “Chavista” defector viewed with suspicion by both sides, will run much to the chagrin of Venezuela’s opposition, who are boycotting the election as they consider it a farce meant to consolidate Maduro’s dictatorship.

“The government promised a paradise to millions of Venezuelans, but they gave them a hell,” Falcona, a governor of the central Lara state from 2008 to 2017, told a later news conference. He called Maduro the “hunger candidate.”

Falcon, who has criticized Maduro for presiding over “anarchy,” has little chance of winning as pro-government supporters view him as a traitor for defecting from the Socialist Party in 2010, while the opposition sees him as an attention-seeking sellout.

Maduro formally signed up on Tuesday and presented his candidacy at the national election board in Caracas before joining a rally of supporters.

Venezuela’s opposition coalition is boycotting the vote, given 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.

“Elections in these conditions will not solve anything,” the coalition said in a statement on Tuesday.

“I will be loyal to the legacy of the giant Hugo Chavez!” he said, dancing reggaeton on stage with his wife Cilia Flores in front of a large banner showing his and Chavez’s faces.

Maduro narrowly won election after Chavez’s 2013 death from cancer, but has seen his popularity plunge during a punishing economic crisis for OPEC member Venezuela that has exposed the failure of government policies and been exacerbated by the decline in global oil prices.

Maduro has blamed a U.S.-led “economic war,” including financial sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump, for the crippling recession that has left millions hungry, created widespread shortages and fueled an exodus from the country.

Critics have said that incompetent policies, such as dysfunctional currency and price controls, and rampant graft are behind the crisis.

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

Maduro hoped for the blessings of Jesus Christ, Chavez and Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar for his re-election campaign.

“I am the people’s president, the oligarchy have under-estimated me,” said Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist. (Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Vivian Sequera, Ana Isabel Martinez, Corina Pons Editing by Grant McCool and Ben Klayman)

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