CARACAS, Venezuela Venezuela's vice president said Friday that President Hugo Chavez could be sworn in by the Supreme Court later on if he's not able to take the oath of office next week before lawmakers because of his struggle with cancer.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro made the comment in a televised interview on Friday night, dismissing the argument by some opposition leaders that new elections must be called if Chavez doesn't take office as scheduled on Thursday.
Maduro says Chavez, as a re-elected president, remains in office beyond the swearing-in date stipulated in the constitution, and could be sworn in if necessary before the Supreme Court at a date to be determined.
As for the opposition, Maduro said, "they should respect our constitution." The vice president held up a small copy of the constitution and read aloud passages relating to such procedures.
Opposition leaders have demanded that the government provide more specific information about Chavez's condition, and say a new election should be held within 30 days if the president doesn't return to Venezuela by inauguration day. But Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a hard deadline, and in saying the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if necessary.
Maduro expressed hope that eventually "we'll see him and we'll hear him" again.
"He has a right to rest and tranquility, and to recuperate," Maduro said on state television, speaking with Information Minister Ernesto Villegas.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly. It also says that if the president is unable to be sworn in before the National Assembly, he may take the oath office before the Supreme Court, and some legal experts have noted that the sentence mentioning the court does not mention a date.
The constitution says that if a president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly and a new election should be held within 30 days.
Venezuelan lawmakers will meet Saturday in a session that could shed light on what steps may be taken if Chavez is too sick to be sworn in for a new term next week.
Legislators will choose a president, two vice presidents and other leaders of the National Assembly, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority. Whoever is elected National Assembly president could eventually end up being the interim president of Venezuela if Chavez is unable to be inaugurated on Thursday as scheduled.
Brewing disagreements over how to handle a possible transition of power also could be aired at the session, coming just five days before the scheduled inauguration day specified in the constitution. Chavez's health crisis has raised contentious questions ahead of the swearing-in, including whether the inauguration could legally be postponed.
The government revealed this week that Chavez is fighting a severe lung infection and receiving treatment for "respiratory deficiency" more than three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba. The announcement suggests a deepening crisis for the 58-year-old president and has fed speculation that he likely is not well enough to travel to Caracas for the inauguration.
But Maduro criticized rumors that have swirled about Chavez's condition, saying: "He has a right to his privacy, and to recover."
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello called on Chavez backers to show up for the legislative session and demonstrate their support.
"This National Assembly is revolutionary and socialist. It will remain beside the people and our commander," Cabello said in one of several messages on his Twitter account. "If the opposition thinks it will find a space in the National Assembly to conspire against the people, it's mistaken once again. It will be defeated."