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 Justice First party of involvement in corruption.
Opposition leaders responded on Wednesday by saying that 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 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 Justice First party by calling the National Assembly's leader "Al Capone" in a message on his Twitter account.
Cabello answered by likening Capriles to another crime boss, the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
"What they want to do here is come after me. What they want here is to demoralize you all," Capriles told supporters in a televised speech Wednesday. He said the government's accusations aim to scare away private businesspeople from making campaign donations to the opposition.
The opposition has accused Cabello of corruption for his handling of the Miranda state governor's office between 2004 and 2008, though he never faced any charges. Capriles reiterated those accusations and then charged that after he defeated Cabello in the 2008 gubernatorial vote, Cabello's group stripped the office of everything of value, down to its lamps and toilets.
"This is the most corrupt government that there has been in the history of our country," 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 lawmaker 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 has denied that the money was a bribe.
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.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua joined in, saying those in the opposition party are a "band of stuck-up crooks."
Tensions between pro- and anti-Chavez politicians appear to be on the rise. In late January, the opposition accused pro-Chavez lawmaker Claudio Farias of punching opposition lawmaker Julio Borges in a hallway of the legislative palace. Cabello at the time called for calm but also said that "we aren't going to put handcuffs on our deputies."
Other opposition leaders called the government's latest corruption accusations a farce, noting that a former case against Marcano had been dropped by a court two years ago.
Mardo said he did nothing wrong, and also claimed that one government representative had told him if he defected to the pro-Chavez camp, the accusations would be quietly set aside.
The verbal sparring has erupted amid uncertainty about Chavez's condition.
The 58-year-old president hasn't spoken publicly since before his Dec. 11 surgery for an unspecified type of pelvic cancer. In recent weeks, speculation has grown that the government could be preparing the ground for a new election.
Adding to such speculation was the government's debut this week of a newly designed baseball cap emblazoned with the colors of Venezuela's flag. Maduro, Cabello and other top officials donned the yellow, blue and red cap during street demonstrations Monday, and the vice president called them "revolutionary caps."
However, the cap is very similar to one worn by Capriles during the past presidential campaign. Capriles responded by posting a photo of his cap on Twitter and saying: "They'll never be able to expropriate it."
During Tuesday's congressional session, some lawmakers from both sides wore the flag-design caps, trying to claim the symbol as their own.