CARACAS, Venezuela – 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 has argued that if Chavez is unable to be sworn in as scheduled 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 a day after 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."
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 Chavez's 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."
The latest remarks by Cabello and Maduro sent the strongest signals yet that the government intends to try to postpone the 58-year-old president's inauguration.
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.
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.
Opposition leaders have argued the constitution is clear that the inauguration should occur Thursday, and one presidential term ends and another begins. They have demanded more information about Chavez's condition and have said that if Chavez can't make it back to Caracas by Thursday, the president of the National Assembly should take over provisionally.
If such a change were to occur, it might not lead to any perceptible policy shifts because Cabello is a longtime Chavez ally who vows to uphold his socialist-oriented Bolivarian Revolution movement. But the latest comments by pro-Chavez leaders indicate they intend to avoid any such changes in the presidency, at least for now.
"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."
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.
Maduro called the swearing-in a "formality" that could be taken care of before the Supreme Court at a later date. He echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting that the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if needed.
Shifter said the government's stance has left opposition on the defensive, with its only tactic being to insist that Jan. 10 is the established date.
"The opposition's strong objections to the government's plan are unlikely to get much political traction," Shifter said. "What the government is doing may be of dubious constitutionality but it fits a familiar pattern under Chavez's rule and will probably have minimal political costs."
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.
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.