Caracas, Venezuela – The latest issue to put Venezuela's presidential rivals at odds with each other? A baseball cap.
At the center of their latest dispute is a cap emblazoned with the colors of Venezuela's flag that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles frequently wears at campaign rallies ahead of the country's Oct. 7 election.
National Electoral Council officials say Capriles' use of the yellow, blue and red cap while campaigning violates regulations that prohibit the use of the flag's colors in electoral propaganda.
Capriles' response has been to put the cap right back on again.
"Here they kill more than 40 Venezuelans every day, and the issue for the government is the cap I wear," Capriles said in one message on Twitter, referring to the South American country's high murder rate, which has become a central campaign issue.
He told a rally near Caracas on Friday that government officials should be concerned about lapses at the local hospital, not his hat.
President Hugo Chavez said his rival's defiance "is a challenge to the referee, which signifies a challenge to our institutions."
Chavez noted that some of his campaign material includes an image of a heart in the colors of Venezuela's flag, and said if the electoral council decides the hearts aren't proper "we'll withdraw them immediately." He spoke at a rally in Caracas on Friday, using a podium adorned with the heart emblem and the colors of Venezuela's flag.
The dispute reflects conflicting perspectives between election authorities and Chavez's rival.
Four of the five congressionally appointed members of the National Electoral Council are either Chavez allies or perceived as favoring the president. The council has largely ignored opposition complaints that Chavez is hogging campaign airtime and abusing his presidential authority by regularly forcing all Venezuelan TV and radio stations to interrupt programming for his marathon speeches.
Sandra Oblitas, the electoral council's vice president, said Thursday that officials have warned Capriles' campaign multiple times about the hat.
"What we notice is his violation of the regulation and his open contempt of the electoral authority," Oblitas said.
But Capriles insists he respects the rules, saying the attack on his baseball cap reflects his rival's lack of new ideas.
"I also tell you, let's be serious ... the country is waiting for what our plans will be to solve problems. If the government no longer has anything to offer, it's not my fault," Capriles told supporters in the town of Carayaca.
The spat over Capriles' cap came as the elections council announced it is launching administrative probes into alleged campaign violations by both camps.
State television channel Venezolana de Television is being investigated for running campaign ads of its own accord, while state newspaper Correo del Orinoco is accused of using "the image of one of the candidates" without his authorization, the electoral council said in a statement Thursday. It said those in charge of Capriles' campaign advertising are accused of booking excessive ads in a newspaper and on a television channel, exceeding established limits.
The electoral council has the power to impose fines or other penalties if it determines a candidate has violated campaign rules.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.