Opposition leader Henrique Capriles has launched his bid to succeed Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
After confirming he will run in the April 14 elections to replace Mr Chavez, who died last week, he made a no-holds-barred attack on the government, accusing it of betraying Venezuelans’ trust.
Many consider his campaign doomed, as Mr Chavez defeated him by a 12-point margin in October.
During last night’s announcement, he accused opponent Nicolas Maduro of using Mr Chavez’s corpse as a campaign prop. Mr Maduro is Mr Chavez’s hand-picked successor.
Mr Capriles, 40, said Mr Chavez’s political heirs have toyed with Venezuelans’ hopes, lying to them about his deteriorating health by suggesting he could recover and even producing decrees he supposedly signed.
He did not make direct reference to the decision to embalm Mr Chavez and put him on permanent display, but he said: “You are playing politics with the president’s body.”
He accused the socialist government that Mr Chavez led for 14 years of meticulously planning a campaign to assure the election of Mr Maduro.
“Who knows when President Chavez (really) died,” he said.
The government says Mr Chavez succumbed to cancer on Tuesday after a nearly two-year battle. It has offered almost no clinical information.
Mr Capriles also called Defence Minister Diego Molero a “disgrace” for publicly backing Mr Maduro. The constitution forbids the military from taking political sides.
“Don’t fool yourselves that you’re the good and we’re the bad,” Mr Capriles said in a 45-minute speech at his Caracas campaign headquarters.
“No, you’re no better than us. I don’t play with death. I don’t play with pain.”
With a picture of Mr Chavez behind him, Mr Maduro appeared almost immediately on state TV, accusing “the losing, miserable candidate” of defaming Mr Chavez and his family.
He called Mr Capriles a “fascist” trying to provoke violence by insulting the “crystalline, pure image of Commander Chavez”.
Mr Maduro said: “You have made the biggest mistake of your life.”
He said that if Mr Chavez’s family seeks legal action “don’t say afterward that you are being politically persecuted”.
Capriles, a state governor, acknowledged facing long odds against a candidate who wields vast public resources and a state media machine.
“As one person said today, ’Capriles, they are taking you to a slaughterhouse. Are you going to be lowered into its meat grinder?”’ he said.
But he said he felt he had no other choice.
“How am I not going to fight?” he said. “How are we not going to fight? This is not Capriles’ fight. This is everybody’s fight.”
In some upper-class districts of the capital, people launched fireworks, shouted and honked horns as Mr Capriles announced he would run.
He outlined potential major themes for his campaign, bemoaning violent crime, persistent poverty and a troubled economy that led the government to devalue the currency last month by more than 30%.
The electoral council has set the vote for April 14. Formal campaigning begins just 12 days earlier.
Opposition critics say Mr Maduro’s swearing-in Friday as acting president was unconstitutional. The charter designates the National Assembly interim head of state if a president-elect cannot be sworn in.