CARACAS (Reuters) - A Venezuelan government official has for the first time raised the possibility that Hugo Chavez's January 10 inauguration could be delayed as the president struggles to recover from his latest cancer surgery.
Few details have been given about the 58-year-old Chavez's condition after his fourth operation in 18 months. Officials say he is lucid, but that doctors treated him for unexpected bleeding and then a respiratory infection after last week's procedure.
Comments by Diosdado Cabello, a leader in Congress and close ally of the president, suggested government officials may postpone the inauguration to accommodate Chavez's recovery.
Any delay would outrage Venezuela's opposition, which has insisted for months that Chavez officially hand over power while he convalesces in Cuba. The constitution says he should be sworn in again on January 10, but there are conflicting interpretations as to what would happen if he is not.
"You can't tie the will of the people to one date. If you didn't do it that day, if it isn't the tenth, doesn't the will of eight million people count?" local media quoted Cabello as saying.
Cabello spoke after a Socialist Party news conference and insisted that he was offering only his personal opinion and not the "official position" of his party or the national assembly.
He said the assembly could ask the Supreme Court, widely believed to be under the thumb of Chavez allies, for a ruling on any possible postponement. He cited one case in which he said a mayor had been given a three-month extension on an inauguration date.
Cabello is a military man who participated in the failed 1992 coup attempt that made Chavez famous. He is the third most powerful figure in the government after Chavez's heir apparent, Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
One constitutional law professor said Chavez's inability to begin his third term on January 10 would not automatically trigger new elections, as has been widely reported in media.
"The issue always ends up in a debate in parliament. It's the whole assembly that will decide" through a majority vote if the president is no longer fit for office, said Jose Vicente Haro of the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas.
The confusion threatens to create an unruly transition to a post-Chavez government in the OPEC nation, where the former soldier has vastly expanded presidential powers and built a near-cult following.
Maduro said in a press conference that government leaders were focused on Chavez's recovery, skirting a direct question about the possibility of changing the swearing-in date.
"Right now we are focused on praying and maintaining our faith .... so that our commander in chief and president can fulfil his sacred duty of being sworn in for a new term on January 10," Maduro said.
The Supreme Court could rule on the issue if necessary, he added.
Opposition leaders decried Cabello's comments as a sign that the Socialist Party could fiddle with succession rules to accommodate Chavez's recovery.
"They law guarantees order and peace. We must respect the constitution with no shortcuts because this could lead to anarchy, which nobody wants," said opposition legislator Hiram Gaviria. "There is no need for any interpretation by the Supreme Court."
The government said late on Tuesday that Chavez was "stable" again but needed complete rest after suffering a respiratory infection.
Chavez himself raised the possibility of his incapacitation before leaving for Cuba, naming Maduro as his preferred successor and urging Venezuelans to vote for the former bus driver if there were a new presidential election.
The consequences are huge, not just for a nation with the world's largest crude oil reserves, but also for an alliance of left-wing Latin American governments led by Chavez and dependent on his oil-fuelled generosity to help support their economies.
One ally, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, said on Twitter that Chavez was recovering satisfactorily "and has even resumed work ... we have faith and hope that he will win this battle."
A new election would likely pit Maduro against opposition leader Henrique Capriles. In a sign of how the political forces are shaping up in Venezuela, Chavez allies won 20 out of 23 governorships in state elections on Sunday.
Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Caracas and Eduardo Garcia in Quito; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Christopher Wilson