Venezuela’s Vice-President said on 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 legislators 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 Mr. Chavez doesn’t take office as scheduled on Thursday. His stance appeared likely to generate friction between the government and opposition over the legality of putting off the swearing-in, which the Constitution says should occur on Thursday before the National Assembly.
Mr. Maduro says Mr. Chavez, as a re-elected President, remains in office beyond the inauguration date stipulated in the Constitution, and could be sworn in if necessary before the Supreme Court at a date to be determined.
“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,” Mr. Maduro said.
As for the opposition, Mr. 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 Mr. Chavez’s condition, and say that if the President doesn’t return to Venezuela by inauguration day, the president of the National Assembly should take over the presidency on an interim basis. But Mr. Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a hard 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.”
As for Mr. Chavez, Mr. Maduro reiterated that the President is fighting a “complex” health battle but expressed hope that eventually “we’ll see him and we’ll hear him.”
“He has a right to rest and tranquillity, and to recuperate,” Mr. Maduro said on state television, speaking with Information Minister Ernesto Villegas.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken on January 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 legislators will meet on Saturday in a session that could shed light on what steps may be taken if Mr. 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 under some circumstances.
Brewing disagreements over how to handle a possible transition of power could be aired at the session, coming just five days before the scheduled inauguration day specified in the Constitution.
The government revealed this week that Mr. 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.