Venezuelan politicians voted to postpone the inauguration of ailing President Hugo Chavez for his new term, prompting complaints from opponents who called it a violation of the constitution.
Mr Chavez’s congressional allies, who hold a majority of seats in the National Assembly, agreed with a government proposal for Mr Chavez to be sworn in at a later date before the Supreme Court.
While pro-Chavez politicians approved the plan with a show of hands, opponents condemned the action as illegal.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke the news that Mr Chavez would not be able to attend tomorrow’s scheduled inauguration in a letter to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, confirming suspicions that Mr Chavez’s battle with cancer and a related respiratory infection would keep him in a Cuban hospital past the key date.
Mr Maduro said that on the recommendation of Mr Chavez’s medical team, his recovery process “should be extended beyond January 10”.
The vice president said Mr Chavez was invoking a provision in the constitution allowing him to be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a “later date”.
The opposition disputed that argument and appealed to the Organisation of American States, but did not appear to have other immediate routes to block the government’s plan.
Tensions between the government and opposition have been building for days in the dispute over whether the ailing president’s swearing-in can legally be postponed. The president underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba last month and has not spoken publicly in a month.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said earlier that Mr Chavez’s current term constitutionally ends tomorrow and that the Supreme Court should rule in the matter.
Other opposition leaders have argued that the inauguration cannot legally be put off and that the National Assembly president should take over as interim president if Mr Chavez has not returned from Cuba on inauguration day.
“The Supreme Court has to take a position on what the text of the constitution says,” said Mr Capriles, who lost to Mr Chavez in presidential elections three months ago.
“There is no monarchy here, and we aren’t in Cuba.”
However, Mr Capriles said he saw no reason to bring a formal challenge to the Supreme Court because it was obliged to issue a ruling on the dispute.
The Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge brought by an individual lawyer, Otoniel Pautt Andrade, who had argued that it would violate the constitution for Mr Cabello to refuse to assume the presidency provisionally if Mr Chavez were unfit to be sworn in on the set date.
The court’s ruling did not provide a detailed interpretation of the constitution, but it made clear the court backs the government’s stance that Mr Cabello need not assume the presidency at this stage.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken before politicians in the National Assembly on January 10 but adds that the president may also take the oath before the Supreme Court if he is unable to be sworn in before the assembly.
Government officials argue that clause does not explicitly mention a date, though opponents say it clearly refers to the January 10 deadline.