Allies of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez re-elect legislative chief

By Ian James

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 5 2013 12:37 p.m. MST

A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds a picture of him decorated with a rosary and the words in Spanish "Merry Christmas" outside the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. Venezuelan lawmakers are meeting Saturday to select a new president of the National Assembly in a session that could give clues to the future of the country amid uncertainty about ailing Chavez. Just five days remain until Chavez's scheduled inauguration on Thursday and officials are suggesting the swearing-in could be delayed.

Fernando Llano, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Allies of 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.

Diosdado Cabello was retained as legislative leader in a vote by a show of hands. Chavez's allies hold a majority of the 165 congressional seats.

Just five days remain until Chavez's scheduled inauguration on Thursday, and government officials are suggesting the swearing-in could be delayed as the president fights a severe respiratory infection after cancer surgery in Cuba.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday night that Chavez could take the oath of office for his next term before the Supreme Court at a later date if he isn't fit to be sworn in next week. His comments sent the strongest signal yet that the government may seek to postpone the 58-year-old president's inauguration for a new term more than three weeks after he underwent cancer surgery in Cuba.

Maduro's statement in a televised interview generated new friction between the government and opposition, which argues that according to the constitution, the inauguration should occur Thursday before the National Assembly. Opposition leaders have argued that if Chavez doesn't make it back to Caracas by that date, the president of the National Assembly should take over as interim president.

That would be Cabello, a longtime Chavez ally who is widely considered to wield influence within the military.

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 have often appeared side by side during Chavez's illness and have 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.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas reiterated on Saturday that Chavez is still in office, saying in comments reported by the state news agency that "Chavez has won a thousand battles and has reappeared when no one expected."

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.

"They should respect our constitution," the vice president said. "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."

Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a firm 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."

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.

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