CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Allies of cancer-stricken 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.
The vote to retain Diosdado Cabello as legislative leader signaled the ruling party's desire to stress unity and continuity amid growing signs the government plans to postpone Chavez's inauguration for a new term while he fights a severe respiratory infection nearly a month after cancer surgery in Cuba.
The opposition and some legal experts have argued that if Chavez is unable to be sworn in as scheduled on Thursday, the president of the National Assembly should take over on an interim basis.
Cabello's selection quashed speculation about possible political reshuffling in the midst of Chavez's health crisis, and it came as Vice President Nicolas Maduro joined other allies in suggesting that Chavez could remain president and take the oath of office before the Supreme Court later on if he isn't fit to be sworn in on the scheduled date.
"It strikes me that the government has decided to put things on hold, to wait and see what happens with Chavez's health and other political factors, and figure out the best way to insure continuity," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "Maduro and Cabello are clearly the key players within Chavismo today, each heading separate factions, but for the time being the idea is to reaffirm both and project a sense of unity."
Cabello, a former military officer who is widely considered to wield influence in the military, was re-elected by a show of hands by Chavez's allies, who hold a majority of the 165 congressional seats.
Pro-Chavez party leaders ignored calls to include opposition lawmakers among the legislative leadership, and opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia said the choices represented "intolerance." None of the opposition lawmakers supported the new legislative leaders.
Hundreds of Chavez's supporters gathered outside the National Assembly to show their support, some holding flags and pictures of the president.
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 in addition to Chavez allies have noted that the sentence referring to the court does not mention a date.
"When, it doesn't say. Where, it doesn't say either," Cabello told supporters after the session. Apparently alluding to possible protests by opponents over the issue of delaying the inauguration, Cabello told supporters: "The people have to be alert on the street so that there is no show."
Without giving details, Cabello urged them to "defend the revolution."
Maduro argued that Chavez, as a re-elected president, remains in his post after Jan. 10 regardless of whether he has taken the oath of office on that date. "When he can, he will be sworn in," Maduro said.
The latest remarks by the two most powerful men in Chavez's party sent the strongest signals yet that the government wants to delay the 58-year-old president's inauguration.
Former Supreme Court magistrate Roman Duque Corredor disagreed with Maduro, saying that "the constitution doesn't allow an extension" of a presidential term.
"An extension of a term can't be discussed," Duque said told The Associated Press a phone interview. "What would be right is to definitively determine what the president's state of health is." He said the Supreme Court should designate a board of doctors to determine whether Chavez's condition prevents him from continuing to exercise his duties temporarily or permanently.
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 appeared side-by-side waving to supporters after the session and vowed to remain united.