By FABIOLA SANCHEZ and IAN JAMES
CARACAS, Venezuela — Allies of President Hugo Chavez on Saturday chose to keep the same National Assembly president — a man who could be in line to step in as a caretaker leader in some circumstances.
Diosdado Cabello was retained as legislative leader in a vote by a show of hands. Chavez’s allies hold a majority of the 165 congressional seats.
Just five days remain until Chavez’s scheduled inauguration on Thursday, and government officials are suggesting the swearing-in could be delayed as the president fights a severe respiratory infection after cancer surgery in Cuba.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday night that Chavez could take the oath of office for his next term before the Supreme Court at a later date if he isn’t fit to be sworn in next week. His comments sent the strongest signal yet that the government may seek to postpone the 58-year-old president’s inauguration for a new term more than three weeks after he underwent cancer surgery in Cuba.
Maduro’s statement in a televised interview generated new friction between the government and opposition, which argues that according to the constitution, the inauguration should occur Thursday before the National Assembly. Opposition leaders have argued that if Chavez doesn’t make it back to Caracas by that date, the president of the National Assembly should take over as interim president.
That would be Cabello, a longtime Chavez ally who is widely considered to wield influence within the military.
If Chavez dies or is declared incapacitated, the constitution says that a new election should be called and held within 30 days, and Chavez has said Maduro should be the candidate. There have been no public signs of friction between the vice president and Cabello, who have often appeared side by side during Chavez’s illness and have vowed to remain united.
Maduro and other Cabinet ministers attended the session, and Cabello reiterated that there is no basis to rumors of divisions between him and the vice president.
If the government delays the swearing-in and Chavez’s condition improves, the president and his allies could have more time to plan an orderly transition and prepare for a new presidential election.
Cabello’s selection quashed speculation about possible political reshuffling in the midst of Chavez’s health crisis, pointing instead to an effort for continuity and stability within the party leadership.
“We’re experiencing political stability,” Soto Rojas said as he announced the choices of Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Referring to Chavez, the former legislative leader said: “Onward, Comandante. … We’re continuing with the Bolivarian process.”
The opposition had called for an inclusive leadership to encourage dialogue, but Chavez’s party did not include any opposition lawmakers among the congressional leaders, and opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia said the choices represented “intolerance.”
Hundreds of Chavez’s supporters gathered outside the National Assembly to show their support, some holding flags and pictures of the president.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas reiterated on Saturday that Chavez is still in office, saying in comments reported by the state news agency that “Chavez has won a thousand battles and has reappeared when no one expected.”
Speaking on television Friday, Maduro read from a small blue copy of the constitution, arguing that opponents were using erroneous interpretations to try to drive Chavez from power.
“They should respect our constitution,” the vice president said. “The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved before the Supreme Court of Justice, at the time (the court) deems, in coordination with the head of state, Commander Hugo Chavez.”
Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a firm deadline, and that the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if needed.
“Maduro’s comments are not surprising. The government holds all the cards in the current situation, particularly given the compassion for Chavez’s serious illness. It has interpreted the constitution loosely, to its own political advantage,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “In this way Maduro is able to buy some time, assert his authority and rally support within Chavismo. He puts the opposition on notice and throws it off balance.”
Chavez was re-elected in October to another six-year term, and two months later announced that his pelvic cancer had returned. Chavez said before the operation that if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Maduro should be his party’s candidate to replace him in a new election.
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 Assembly, he may take the oath before the Supreme Court, and some legal experts have noted that the sentence referring to the court does not mention a date.
Others disagree. Ruben Ortiz, a lawyer and opposition supporter, argued that the inauguration date can’t be postponed.
If Chavez is not in Caracas to be sworn in on Thursday, Ortiz said in a phone interview, “the president of the National Assembly should take charge.” He added that “there is a formal separation between one term and the other.”
Shifter said the opposition is on the defensive, with its only tactic being to insist that Jan. 10 is the established date.
“Chavez controls all the key institutions, and it’s doubtful that most Venezuelans will get too upset about defying what seems a fairly minor constitutional provision,” Shifter said. “Attacking the government because it has no objection to the Supreme Court swearing in Chavez after Jan. 10 is not exactly a winning political strategy for the opposition.”
A delay also serves the government’s purposes, Shifter said. “The government wants more time, whether to see if Chavez gets better, or to consolidate their ranks and further splinter and demoralize the opposition.”
Chavez hasn’t spoken publicly or been seen since his Dec. 11 operation. The government revealed this week that Chavez is fighting a severe lung infection and receiving treatment for “respiratory deficiency.”
That account raised the possibility that he might be breathing with the assistance of a machine. But the government did not address that question or details of the president’s treatment, and independent medical experts consulted by The Associated Press said the statements indicated a potentially dangerous turn in Chavez’s condition, but said it’s unclear whether he is attached to a ventilator.
Chavez has undergone four cancer-related surgeries since June 2011 for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer. He also has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Other legislative leaders chosen Saturday included Dario Vivas as first vice president and Blanca Eekhout as second vice president, keeping her in the same role.