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.
Wearing his trademark baseball cap down low, Falcon arrived in a hardscrabble neighborhood near Barquisimeto at 5:30 a.m. one recent day. Housewives came out of their homes to hug him in the early-morning darkness. Others handed him their wish lists, which included requests for new homes and jobs.
"There is no one like Henri Falcon," Marjory Suarez said after Falcon entered her tiny store and pledged to provide a micro-loan so she could buy a refrigerator. "I waited for him since 3 a.m., and I had faith that he would help me."
Falcon's early-morning tours of needy barrios have an official name, Wake Up With Henri. He said the idea is to show residents that the government works for them. But the excursions also help him measure his support among people like Maria Escalante, a school principal.
Moments after meeting with Falcon, Escalante raved about him - and complained about Chavez.
"The reality is that the government has deteriorated with so many big corruption scandals," she said. "I think what is happening is that President Chavez does not listen to the people."
Disenchantment with Chavez is indeed running high these days.
Revelations that thousands of tons of food imported by the state were left rotting at seaside ports have received ample media attention. The Chavez administration's inability to contend with the continent's highest homicide rate and a stagnant economy have also hurt the president, whose popularity dropped below 50 percent this year.
But Chavez still dominates the political landscape and is beloved by many poor Venezuelans who believe that he has improved their lives through generous social programs. He also oversees a well-oiled political machine accustomed to winning elections and controls a formidable array of state television stations that offer constant coverage of his rallies and speeches.
Chavez has warned that his opponents come from "a rotten bourgeoisie" that would surrender Venezuela's independence to the United States, which he calls "the empire."
To pry seats from Chavez, the opposition formed the Democratic Unity Movement and offered candidates from across the political spectrum. The opposition has drawn close to the government, polls show, although Chavez's allies have an advantage because of electoral rules that give more weight to votes in rural areas, where the president is strongest.
Some members of Fatherland for All, which has six seats in congress, have gone to great pains to differentiate the party from the opposition, saying that they want to retain Chavez's revolutionary spirit. But Falcon said Chavez has come to rule in an authoritarian manner, with the government regularly violating the constitution.
"What do we want?" Falcon said. "We want a multicolored congress, a plural congress, a congress that is open, critical and not subject to the designs of one party or one president."