CARACAS (Reuters) - Acting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro vowed on Monday to stamp out corruption following days of accusations by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles that ruling party officials were plundering the country’s oil wealth.
Corruption has been a perennial problem in Venezuela and was a primary campaign issue for the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez when he was first elected in 1998. His death from cancer last month triggered the April 14 election.
Polls show Maduro comfortably winning the election thanks to the goodwill generated by Chavez’s social spending measures, although opposition critics had for years accused Chavez of allowing graft among allies to go unchecked.
“I‘m going to pursue corruption where ever it is. I’ll give my own life to combat corruption if it’s necessary,” Maduro, who Chavez had endorsed as his successor, said at a campaign rally in the eastern city of Maturin.
“We’ve got great challenges to overcome bureaucracy, corruption and indolence of some officials who turn a blind eye to the problems of the people.”
Opinion polls, which are notoriously controversial and divergent in Venezuela, give Maduro a double-digit lead over Capriles. The latest private survey by local pollster Datanalisis, cited by the Eurasia Group think tank, gave him 50.2 percent, compared with 32.4 percent for his opponent.
That was a wider gap than in a Datanalisis poll last month that gave Maduro 49.2 percent and Capriles 34.8 percent.
Capriles has in recent days promised to end special favors for those who are “plugged-in” - a reference to friends of party leaders who gain quick access to social benefits such as newly built homes while others remain stuck on waiting lists.
Chavez’s first election in 1998 drew heavily on popular outrage over widespread corruption in the 1990s, when poverty rose dramatically as oil prices remained low.
But the issue became less important during his 14-year rule as rising oil prices spurred economic growth and Chavez used windfall revenue to build free health clinics and subsidized grocery stores and provide pensions to the elderly.
Corruption accusations during Chavez’s presidency have focused almost entirely on opposition leaders or elected officials who defected from the Socialist Party ranks. Critics say he avoided pursuing charges against allies.
Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who lost a presidential election to Chavez last year, says Venezuela needs a fresh start after 14 years of Chavez’s hardline socialism.
He says the frequent nationalizations under Chavez’s government allowed corrupt officials to control the sale of products ranging from cement to coffee and require desperate buyers to pay bribes to access them.
Capriles wants to install a Brazilian-style administration of free-market economics with strong social policies, although former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has publicly endorsed Maduro.
Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Trott