CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez and his allies accused opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles on Sunday of trying to provoke violence by campaigning in areas that have been bastions of support for the incumbent leader.
Chavez accused Capriles of trying to spur violence as part of a broader plan aimed at creating widespread political upheaval ahead of Venezuela's looming Oct. 7 presidential election.
"They are going to try to destabilize the country. I've been saying it and everybody should be alert," said Chavez, speaking to soldiers during a ceremony to promote military officers.
The socialist leader spoke after a scuffle Saturday involving stone-throwing Chavistas and opposition sympathizers who joined Capriles as he led a march in the poor Caracas district of La Vega. Police forced him to turn back without completing the march.
"Yesterday, for example, a very lamentable incident occurred. But it's evidence of this plan," Chavez said, speaking in front of hundreds of uniformed soldiers at Venezuela's largest military fort. "We must neutralize the destabilization plans."
Pro-Chavez lawmaker Juan Carlos Aleman echoed the president's accusations.
Capriles demonstrated "an irresponsible attitude by staging an event in a neighborhood that backs President Chavez," said Aleman.
Capriles called for calm and attempted to avoid any violence amid the tussle, which police broke up before violence escalated. No major injuries were reported.
"I'm not walking Venezuela's streets to fight with anybody," Capriles said. It was not the candidate's first foray into a Chavez bastion.
So far, campaigning ahead of an Oct. 7 presidential vote has mostly been peaceful, but observers warn the deep political polarization and rising tensions between allies and adversaries of Chavez could boil over, making for a potentially violent campaign.
"There is a risk that minor clashes between supporters of both camps could escalate and threaten social peace. The distrust is profound, and arms are plentiful," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "It is likely that cooler heads will prevail and the violence will be kept in check, but that is far from assured."
Capriles is seeking to shore up support from working-class and poor Venezuelans, which make up most of the country's 19 million voters.
Chavez denied that he's attempting to undermine Capriles' efforts to make inroads in poverty-stricken barrios.
"There has never been so much freedom in this country to exercise politics," he said.
Chavez, a former paratroop commander, noted that he has barely begun campaigning because he's still recovering from cancer treatment and attending day-to-day duties as president, but he expressed optimism that he'd defeat Capriles at the polls.
Over the past 13 months, Chavez has undergone two surgeries that removed tumors from his pelvic region, most recently in February. Chavez he has not disclosed key details about his illness including the type of cancer he's fighting or the precise location of the tumors.
Following his cancer treatments, Chavez has appeared in public less frequently, preferring to address Venezuelans during marathon speeches broadcast on television and radio.
"I'm sure we are going to win the election. Of course, we have to work hard," he said.
Capriles' campaign manager, Armando Briquet, called on the National Electoral Council to send representatives to the area.
Election officials have not yet responded to the request.