By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Opposition leader Henrique Capriles accused Venezuela's "incompetent" President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday of bankrupting the nation in an increasingly radical blame-game over the OPEC member's economic distortions.
Since late socialist leader Hugo Chavez died of cancer in February, the economy has joined crime as Venezuelans' top concerns. Prices are soaring at an annualized 45 percent, a black market for dollars is booming, and basic goods from flour to toilet-paper are often scarce.
A self-declared "son" of Chavez, the 50-year-old Maduro says local opponents, backed by the United States and cheered by compliant foreign media, are deliberately "sabotaging" the economy in an attempt to bring down his government.
"There's a criminal war against the Venezuelan people. They want to lead us to chaos, division and confusion," he again said at the weekend, accusing three just-expelled U.S. diplomats of lending cash, logistics and planning to the cause against him.
Capriles, who narrowly lost an April vote to Maduro and has refused to recognize him, said the president's tolerance of corruption among his team, adherence to a failed socialist model, and personal incapacity, were to blame.
Though said by one fellow opposition leader this week to be facing imminent arrest by the government, Capriles, 40, held nothing back in a blistering Sunday column.
"I warn you, Nicolas," he said, using the informal Spanish "tu" not the "usted" a president would usually be addressed by.
"We're not going to let the country go off a cliff due to your incompetence and the corrupt ones you protect ... You cannot hide the fact you have bankrupted one of the richest nations in the region, and during an oil bonanza."
Referring to reports of dissent in the ruling Socialist Party, Capriles taunted Maduro: "Someone who doesn't even have the trust of his own militants is hardly going to have the trust of the nation he pretends to govern.
"Neither this invention of the economic war nor the political smokescreens they seek abroad to blame others for their disaster are working."
Pollsters say both Maduro and Capriles' approval ratings are down from their April vote levels of 50.6 and 49.1 respectively, and many Venezuelans are simply fed up with the political polarization they had hoped might diminish after Chavez.
Both men are rallying supporters ahead of December 8 regional elections that will be a test of Maduro's standing and Venezuelans' confidence in his ability to fix the economy.
Capriles, who governs Miranda state, has taken a confrontational line since an election loss he attributed to fraud. Officials accuse him of fomenting post-election violence that killed nine people, and there are constant rumors he may be detained and charged over that.
Like the government, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition is also beset by talk of divisions, especially over the issue of how to confront the Maduro government. Some opposition leaders want a campaign of street protests and more open defiance, though in the past that failed against Chavez.
With Monday the anniversary of Chavez's last presidential election victory against Capriles on October 7 2012, the government has called supporters onto the streets to march in his memory.
State TV on Sunday was re-running one of Chavez's famous, rambling "Hello, President!" programs.
In what promises to be a politically charged week, Maduro plans to go to parliament on Tuesday to seek extraordinary decree powers used by his predecessor several times.
The president says he needs them to pass economic and anti-corruption measures, but opponents say it is a sign of autocratic rule. Maduro appears to have the two-thirds votes needed for the measure to be passed in the National Assembly.
The president announced a 10 percent wage rise for public workers on Saturday, and is promising measures soon to improve access to foreign currency for dollar-starved importers.
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Sandra Maler)