By Tibisay Romero and Andrew Cawthorne
VALENCIA, Venezuela/CARACAS (Reuters) - Billionaire businessman Lorenzo Mendoza has ruled out challenging Venezuela's leftist President Nicolas Maduro in the upcoming election despite multiple calls for him to stand, sources from his company's workforce said on Thursday.
With the opposition's strongest potential presidential candidates barred from standing and polls confirming his popularity, there had been growing calls around Venezuela for Mendoza to run in the April 22 vote.
A crowd chanted "President! President!" when he recently attended a baseball game, and hundreds have been marching in Caracas and elsewhere urging him to stand and lauding his record as boss of the Polar food and beer company.
But the long-haired, 52-year-old Mendoza has personally told workers he will not put himself forward, according to one Polar employee in the central city of Valencia and another former employee who speaks to workers there.
That leaves Maduro without a popular rival and therefore clear favourite to win in April despite his unpopularity and the dire state of Venezuela's economy.
"I don't remember his exact words, but he said he is a businessman, his family has worked hard to establish the business and that right now the conditions are inadequate for him to be a candidate," the employee told Reuters of a meeting Mendoza held in recent days with workers in Valencia.
The former employee said people who heard Mendoza at a meeting had told him similar. "He said he doesn't want to mix business with work and the conditions are insufficient right now," said the ex-employee, also in Valencia. "I think he has a point."
Polar did not respond to requests for comment.
CLAMOUR FOR OUTSIDER
The widespread clamour for Mendoza to stand - from his own employees to some opposition politicians and various grassroots organizations - reflect Venezuelans' anger and cynicism towards mainstream government and opposition leaders.
"There is a leadership crisis in Venezuela. That is why Lorenzo Mendoza is the perfect outsider and would have won easily," said Manfredo Gonzalez, coordinator of a group that has been holding marches to promote the Polar boss as a candidate.
"He's a man who really loves his country. With the fortune he has, he could easily live abroad, but no, he stays here, fighting for Venezuela and providing food for the people," added Gonzalez, whose lobby group is called the Independent National Movement of Social Alliances.
Though polls show Venezuelans generally like Mendoza and his company, government officials have in the past demonized him as a representative of "savage capitalism" and accused Polar of harming the economy by hoarding goods.
In 2015, Maduro urged legal action against Mendoza over a phone call which aired the possibility of an international bailout for the OPEC nation's ailing economy.
Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Maduro, the 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, predicted an easy win in the April election. Venezuela's opposition says the vote is a farce given that its most popular figures - Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles - are prohibited from standing and the national election board is widely perceived as pro-government.
Lopez is under house arrest accused of promoting violence against the government and Capriles is prohibited from standing due to alleged "administrative irregularities" when he was a state governor. Both men deny those charges, saying they are trumped up to sideline them.
However, the opposition also faces a credibility issue, with supporters disillusioned by in-fighting and the failure to weaken Maduro despite massive protests last year that paralysed swathes of the country and left nearly 130 people dead.
Leaders of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition have been meeting to decide whether to boycott the election or put up a unity candidate, with different factions divided over strategy.
(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Susan Thomas)