Leftist Venezuelan politician Henri Falcon challenges Chavez's authority

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 6:20 PM

BARQUISIMETO, VENEZUELA - The most popular politician in this tidy city plunges into the crowds, handing out small loans to small businesses and pledging to build new homes.

He's not President Hugo Chavez, the best-known populist on the continent. His name is Henri Falcon, and as governor of the western state of Lara, he has sought to carve out space for what he calls moderate leftists seeking an alternative to Chavez.

The objective is ambitious: Win enough seats to give the party he helps lead, Fatherland for All, a viable future as a leftist movement without the demagoguery and authoritarianism that critics say characterizes Chavez's government. If the more traditional and conservative opposition also advances, Fatherland for All could become the kingmaker in a new congress.

Now in his 12th year in office, the socialist president controls all but about 18 seats in the 165-member National Assembly, along with the courts, the electoral board and the state oil company. But analysts here say Chavez's foes can declare victory Sunday if they can stop Chavez's allies from securing the two-thirds needed to approve laws without opposition support.

A positive outcome for Fatherland for All, which split with Chavez over his governing style, would be essential if Chavez's grip on the levers of power is to be loosened.

Falcon, 49, who is not running for congress but is the party's most recognizable leader, said he is banking on support from voters who dislike both Chavez and the traditional opposition.

"We offer an option, a different alternative that breaks with the polarization," said Falcon, speaking in an office filled with paintings and sculptures of independence hero Simon Bolivar. "At least 95 or 98 percent of the country is crying for peace and justice. We are tired of the confrontation and the hate that separate us."

Coming from an avowed leftist, Falcon's message has infuriated Chavez and his United Socialist Party, of which Falcon was once a member. Chavez has accused Falcon, whom he met in the army, of joining opposition coup plotters in trying to oust him from office.

"He's a traitor - let the people from Lara know it," Chavez said in March on his weekly television show. "I knew it, maybe like Christ knew that Judas was the traitor."

Falcon's strength comes from his ability to attract not only Chavistas, as the president's supporters are called, but also conservative elements in Lara, including influential businessmen. That helped him win the mayor's seat twice in Barquisimeto, the state capital, and the governorship in 2008, when he drew the support of three out of four voters.

A strong showing for Fatherland for All on Sunday could mean that Falcon emerges to challenge Chavez in the 2012 presidential election.

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