As concerns mount about the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, his vice-president has declared that the ailing leader can 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.
Vice-President Nicolas Maduro sent the strongest signal yet that the government may seek to postpone Chávez's inauguration as the 58-year-old president fights a severe respiratory infection more than three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba.
Maduro's position in a televised interview last Friday night generated new friction between the government and opposition over the swearing-in, which the constitution says should occur next Thursday before the National Assembly.
Some opposition leaders have argued that if Chávez doesn't make it back to Caracas by that date, the president of the National Assembly should take over as interim president.
Speaking on television, Maduro held up a small blue copy of the constitution and read aloud passages as he argued that opponents were using erroneous interpretations to try to drive Chávez 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 Chávez."
Maduro echoed other Chávez 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 Chávez'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."
Chávez was re-elected in October to another six-year term, and two months later announced that his pelvic cancer had returned.
He 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.
Maduro reiterated on Friday that the president is fighting a "complex" battle for his health, but expressed hope that eventually, "we'll see him and we'll hear him".
"He has a right to rest and tranquility, and to recuperate," Maduro said.
"The president right now is the exercising president. He has his government formed.