Opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Sunday entered the race to succeed Hugo Chavez in the April 14 election, accusing the late Venezuelan leader's chosen successor of using Chavez's death for political ends.
Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October election, launched a broadside against acting President Nicolas Maduro, even suggesting that he lied about the day that Chavez died.
"Nicolas, I won't leave you an open path, mate. You are going to have to defeat me with votes," said the telegenic 40-year-old Miranda state governor.
After weeks of rumors about the president's health, Maduro went on national television last Tuesday to announce the death of Chavez, telling that nation that the firebrand leftist had lost his two-year battle with cancer at that age of 58.
"Nicolas lied to this country," Capriles said, adding that the former vice president had been buying time during Chavez's illness to prepare the election. "Who knows when president Chavez died?"
Chavez traveled to Cuba on December 10 for a fourth round of cancer surgery and was never heard or seen in public again. He returned to Caracas on February 18 and no images of him were ever shown until his death.
He has been lying in state since Wednesday in an open casket at a Caracas military academy.
The government says it will embalm the body for posterity to be viewed "like Lenin" in a glass casket, a decision denounced by the opposition, which says Chavez wanted to be buried.
"Now on top of it all, you are using the body of the president to stage a political campaign," Capriles said, accusing the late leader's aides of being "sickened by power."
The opposition leader accused the government again of abusing its power and violating the constitution by swearing-in Maduro as acting president late Friday, arguing that he should have stepped down in order to run for office.
Maduro has countered that the opposition conveniently misinterpreted the constitution and that his inauguration followed the wishes of his predecessor, who had asked the nation to elect him if he died.
Hours before Capriles spoke, Maduro accepted the backing of the communist party, with words of praise for Chavez and disdain for the "reactionary, troglodyte right-wing."
"I am a man of the street. I am not in this post of acting president and I won't be president from April 15 because of vanity or personal aspirations," the burly, 50-year-old former bus driver and union activist told a communist party conference.
"I will be president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces because that was the order that he (Chavez) gave me and I will fulfill his orders," Maduro said.
The two candidates will register for the snap election on Monday.
The late president will cast a huge shadow over the election, with throngs of Chavez loyalists continuing to file past his open casket at the military academy under a baking sun.
As they stood in line, they chanted: "Chavez I swear to you, my vote is for Maduro!"
"This will be a very complex election, with a very short campaign in which the government has a clear advantage emotionally with the recent death of Chavez," said Luis Vicente Leon, director of pollsters Datanalisis.
"It will be a battle between the divine and the human," he said.
Chavez defeated Capriles by 11 points in the October presidential election, but Capriles gave the opposition its best result ever against the president, garnering 44 percent of the votes.
A recent survey by pollsters Hinterlaces gave Maduro a 14-point advantage over Capriles, though the opposition leader has questioned the firm's reliability in the past.
Capriles, a youthful, energetic lawyer and runner, drew massive crowds during the last campaign, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Caracas for a rally in the final stretch of the race.
But Chavez was propelled to victory again thanks to his popularity among the nation's once-neglected poor, who worshipped him for the oil-funded social program that brought them health care, housing and education. His expropriations and nationalizations of key industries, however, have riled the wealthy.
The opposition accused Chavez of using his position to dominate the airwaves and use state funds to finance his campaign.