Allies and adversaries of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are in a heated debate about whether a decision to postpone the ailing leader's inauguration for a new term violates the constitution.


Chavez's congressional allies voted on Tuesday to allow the president's swearing-in, which was scheduled for Thursday, to be put off while he recovers from his cancer surgery in Cuba. Chavez has not spoken publicly in a month, and his long silence has led many opposition politicians to insist that a "temporary absence" of the president should be declared.


The Venezuelan Constitution says the oath of office should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10, this Thursday. It also says that if he is unable to be sworn in by the National Assembly, the president may take the oath before the Supreme Court.

Pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez politicians, as well as legal experts, have been arguing about Article 231, which states: "The president-elect shall take office on January 10 of the first year of his or her constitutional term, by taking an oath before the National Assembly. If for any unforeseen reason, the President of the Republic cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, he or she shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Court."

Government officials argue that clause does not explicitly mention a date for a swearing-in before the Supreme Court, and that it can be carried out at a later date, as approved by lawmakers. Government opponents and some legal experts say the constitution is clear that one term ends on Jan. 10 and another begins, arguing that officials appointed by Chavez in his previous term will no longer have legitimacy after that date.


Many opposition politicians agree that under the constitution Chavez can legally miss Thursday's ceremony. But they argue that for such a postponement to be legal, lawmakers would have to approve a 90-day "temporary absence." They say that under the constitution, the president of the National Assembly would then take over as interim president for 90 days, a period which could be extended for an additional 90 days.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello argue that Chavez remains in his duties as president and that he should be granted more time to recover.

Venezuela's Supreme Court has the authority to rule on constitutional questions. On Tuesday, the court rejected a legal challenge brought by one lawyer in which it backed the government's stance that Cabello need not assume the presidency at this stage.