CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's hardline opposition party Popular Will, whose leader Leopoldo Lopez would be a leading presidential contender if he were not under house arrest, announced on Friday it would boycott April's presidential vote, calling it a "fraud."

 

Venezuela's opposition coalition has been debating whether to participate in the April 22 election. Although leftist President Nicolas Maduro has low approval ratings, critics say the electoral council is likely to alter the results of the vote in his favor, and the two main opposition figureheads are banned from participating.

 

Lopez is under house arrest for allegedly inciting violence during 2014 protests, while two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles is barred from office for alleged administrative irregularities. Both men deny those charges, saying they are trumped up to sideline them.

 

"The majority of us in Venezuela want an end to the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro, but the criminal, cowardly and dictatorial nature of this regime wants to close all the electoral mechanisms that the people have to express themselves and show their desire for change," the Popular Will party said in a statement on Friday.

 

Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader, is running despite his widespread unpopularity and a devastating economic crisis that has spawned malnutrition, disease, hyperinflation and emigration.

 

He says he is fighting a U.S.-led right-wing conspiracy determined to end socialism in Latin America, hobble Venezuela's economy, and steal its oil wealth.

The opposition coalition, of which Popular Will is a member, has yet to declare its intentions, sparking fears that the perennially squabbling bloc will split over strategy, with some boycotting the vote and others backing several different candidates.

Popular Will urged other opposition parties to refrain from fielding candidates.

"Those who register in these conditions are doing the dictatorship a favor," the party said.

After surviving months of massive street protests last year, Maduro consolidated his power by creating a new legislative superbody and sidelining opposition parties.

Some opposition activists say they have to keep up pressure on Maduro by voting, and an upset could occur given public disgust at growing national penury.

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)