Venezuela's Capriles sees 'epic crusade' for presidency

Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles calls his campaign against acting President Nicolas Maduro a spiritual struggle and "heroic and epic crusade" against abuses of power.

Despite his underdog status, Capriles told AFP in an interview on his campaign bus that he has a shot at winning the April 14 election to replace late leader Hugo Chavez, who lost his battle to cancer on March 5.

The election has taken religious overtones, with the opposition candidate often invoking God, while Maduro peppers his own speeches with Christian references and adulatory homages to Chavez.

"I think that we have to appeal to the faith of Venezuelans," the 40-year-old Miranda state governor said as his campaign bus headed to Maracaibo, in the northwestern state of Zulia.

"We are facing abuses of power, which have turned into attacks, blackmail, fear-mongering, using the entire state media machinery to try to intimidate," Capriles said. "It has turned this (election) into a spiritual struggle."

The opposition leader, who has painted his presidential bid as a struggle between good and evil, ended a day of campaigning Tuesday by praying in front of an image of the Virgin Mary at the Basilica of Maracaibo.

It is the second presidential election in six months for the youthful lawyer, who was picked again by a coalition of opposition parties to run as a unity candidate.

In October, Capriles lost to Chavez by 11 points in a bitterly fought campaign, but his 44 percent score was the opposition's best showing in 14 years against the firebrand leftist leader. Polls show Capriles trailing Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, by double digits.

Capriles said he was fighting a "heroic and epic crusade" against the "power of the state," accusing Maduro of flooding the airwaves with mandatory broadcasts of official appearances, which the opposition leader said amount to campaign events.

He is still fuming over an "outrageous" Supreme Court ruling allowing Maduro, the former vice president, to be sworn in as acting president days after Chavez's death.

The opposition says the constitution called for the National Assembly speaker to take over as acting leader if the president dies before being sworn in, which is what happened to Chavez, who missed his January 10 swearing-in ceremony.

But the government pointed to a different clause stating that the vice president takes charge pending elections if the president is incapacitated within his first four years in office.

A survey by Hinterlaces gives Maduro an 18-point edge over Capriles, who dismisses the polling firm as "part of the campaign team" of his rival.

Another pollster, Datanalisis, found that the acting president has a 14-point advantage.

Capriles accused Maduro of manipulating the wave of sympathy over Chavez's death for his campaign and claimed that there were divisions within the government since the president died.

The governor said some Chavez loyalists "don't like" Maduro because he lacks leadership experience and deep knowledge of Venezuela, a country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Maduro "must be lighting a candle every day for me to decide" to withdraw from the election, Capriles said, denying government claims that he may pull out.

"I am sure this would delight them. This is what they want, for me to leave them an open path.

"The country realizes more and more every day that Nicolas has no chance to lead this nation or face the problems of this nation."

Capriles accused Maduro once more of "shamelessly" lying about Chavez's health.

The government has never disclosed the exact nature of Chavez's cancer and his health was the source of speculation during the two months that he remained out of the public eye before he died.

The governor, in office since 2008 and re-elected in December, has faced a barrage of criticism from Chavistas about his own leadership skills due to the high level of crime in the northern state of Miranda.

More than 2,500 murders were committed in the state last year, according to official figures.

Capriles countered that the most violent areas are in municipalities led by mayors from the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

While the government says Capriles represents the right wing, the opposition leader has vowed to follow a moderate leftist policy inspired by the Brazilian model, promoting a market economy along with poverty-reducing social programs.

"Social issues are my priority," he said, promising to continue the popular health, education and housing programs that Chavez implemented across the country.