CARACAS, Venezuela: Corruption accusations and insults are flying between allies and opponents of President Hugo Chavez nearly two months after the Venezuelan leader disappeared from the political stage to undergo cancer surgery in Cuba.
Analysts say the increasingly heated attacks between the two camps could be a preamble to a bruising campaign ahead of a possible new presidential election this year.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello on Tuesday night accused three lawmakers in the party Justice First of involvement in corruption.
Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges responded on Wednesday saying members of the party are totally innocent and that senior government officials are the ones who have enriched themselves during Chavez's 14 years in office.
Political analyst Jose Vicente Carrasquero said Chavez's camp is trying to "demoralize the opposition" and hurt it politically ahead of a possible presidential election. A new vote would be called within 30 days if Chavez were to die or step down from the presidency.
By raising corruption claims, the government is also seeking to distract the public and deflect attention from problems such as shortages of some staple foods, a weakening currency and rampant violent crime, said Carrasquero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas.
"They need to position themselves as winners, and at the time go about presenting the opposition (in a light that suggests) it's going to be defeated in an election," Carrasquero told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Opposition politicians have responded to the government's verbal attacks by stepping up their own accusations and rhetoric in an apparent bid to show they remain a united political movement that won't bow to threats by Chavez's lieutenants.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October and is considered the most likely candidate to run in a new election, responded to the accusations against his party by calling Cabello "Al Capone" in messages on his Twitter account.
The opposition has accused Cabello of corruption for his handling of the Miranda state governor's office several years ago, though he never faced any charges.
"All of these corrupt ones in the government will have to be held accountable," Capriles said.
Before he traveled to Cuba on Dec. 10, Chavez designated Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his chosen successor and said that if his illness were to force him from office, Maduro should run in a new election to take his place.
During Tuesday night's session, which was peppered with insults and a few curses, Cabello showed copies of checks purportedly revealing payments received by opposition lawmaker Richard Mardo. He also accused opposition lawmaker Gustavo Marcano of operating a parallel payroll when he was the mayor of a town in eastern Venezuela.
Cabello then replayed a video of opposition politician Juan Carlos Caldera receiving money from a businessman. That video, which previously surfaced before the country's October presidential election, had prompted Capriles to fire Caldera from his position as an aide. Caldera said at the time that he was temporarily stepping down to allow for an investigation, but he denied the money was a bribe and has recently returned to sessions in the National Assembly.
Pro-Chavez lawmaker Pedro Carreno said a legislative anti-corruption committee will send a report to the Supreme Court to determine if the accusations warrant lifting the politicians' immunity as members of congress so they can be charged and tried.