SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has warned the "very idea of power-sharing" is at stake in next week's Assembly election.
He said crocodiles had been given a higher profile in the current campaign than the crisis in the health service.
Speaking at the launch of his party's election manifesto, Mr Eastwood warned the election marked a "critical moment for power-sharing".
He said voters faced a stark choice between devolution, or a return to direct rule.
"If direct rule is the result delivered by Arlene (Foster, DUP leader) and Michelle (O'Neill, Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland) - it will take a long time to bring back our devolved institutions," he added.
"We know from history that bringing the institutions down is the easy part - getting them up and running again will be much more difficult.
"As we enter into the final stretch of this campaign, it is the very idea of power-sharing in the North which is now at risk."
The SDLP leader told supporters health and Brexit were the key priorities for them in the election.
"It is a disgrace that crocodiles have been given more mention than the crisis in health during the course of this campaign," he added.
He was referring to Mrs Foster's recent comparison of Sinn Fein to a crocodile that, if fed, would keep coming back for more.
Mr Eastwood pledged to bring in an emergency budget to deal with the problems in health on his first day in government, if he was elected.
"Taking the politics out of health doesn't mean that politics ignores the health crisis," he said.
The SDLP leader warned Brexit posed the "biggest threat to the economic, social and political interests of these islands".
He repeated his party's desire to secure special EU status for Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.