CARACAS Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles denied on Wednesday accusations from acting President Nicolas Maduro that he would scrap popular welfare policies if he wins Sunday's election.
Social "missions" in poor areas, from subsidized groceries to Cuban-staffed medical clinics, were a mainstay of the late Hugo Chavez's 14-year socialist rule and kept his popularity high.
His chosen successor, Maduro, 50, says he is the guarantor of their continuation and accuses Capriles of planning to disband the missions and also privatize state oil company PDVSA, whose export revenues fund the projects.
That, said Capriles at a dawn campaign event, was nonsense and scaremongering. The 40-year-old state governor likes to show off his social record in Miranda state and describes himself as a "progressive," but he is depicted by Maduro as a right-wing puppet of Venezuela's wealthy elite and U.S. interests.
Rather than end the missions, Capriles said he would improve, expand and de-politicize them.
"Simply being Venezuelan will give people the right to free education, quality healthcare, social security and housing," he said. "In our plans there will be no blackmailing ... People will not have to be members of a political party to get aid."
Capriles, who has shown plenty of Chavez-style populist traits himself, listed his social policy plans from a 40 percent rise in the minimum wage to subsidized medicines.
"The government elite get annoyed because they want total control over the missions as if they belonged to them. They don't understand they belong to Venezuelans, not those who put the red shirt on," he added, referring to the color of the ruling Socialist Party.
"Don't be deceived, the missions are not going to be ended. The government says that to cheat people and have control."
Accusations and insults have been flying between both camps in the frantic run-up to Sunday's vote for leadership of the South American OPEC nation of 29 million people.
Most polls have shown Maduro comfortably ahead, but a couple of the latest weekly surveys put the gap at below 10 points and Capriles' camp believes the opposition is on a late surge as emotion over Chavez's March 5 death from cancer wanes.
Maduro, a former bus driver who rose to be Chavez's vice-president, has been playing up his working-class roots in contrast to Capriles' wealthy family background. His former boss successfully played Venezuela's class politics for years to guarantee passionate support among the poor.
"The little bourgeois doesn't know what it's like to get up at 4 in the morning, have a coffee and half a piece of bread, then go to work early to keep a family," Maduro told a rally late on Tuesday.
"The only thing he knows is how to count the money gained from exploiting consumers."
Venezuela's election will not only determine the future of "Chavismo" socialism in Venezuela but also who controls the world's largest oil reserves and whether aid to a clutch of left-leaning nations around the region will continue.
Maduro is campaigning on Chavez's legacy, while Capriles wants to implement a Brazilian-style political model.
The winner faces a complicated set of problems, including strained state coffers after last year's heavy election spending, the highest inflation in the Americas, crime rates among the world's highest, and stuttering services.
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo; Editing by Eric Beech)