Questions over President Hugo Chavez's health led some Venezuela observers to predict his party's vulnerability at recent regional elections. Instead, the Bolivarian Revolution once again proved its power - even without "El Comandante" at the helm.
The next political challenge for Chavez as he battles cancer is making it home from Cuba by January 10 - the day of his scheduled inauguration for his third term in office.
If Chavez is unable to leave the Havana hospital and get back to Caracas to be sworn-in by Thursday January 10, Venezuela's constitution outlines a new presidential election must be called within 30 days - a situation that the president's allies have suggested may not happen.
"You cannot subject people's decision to one single date, no matter what the constitution says," said Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly and a Chavez ally.
"According to the national constitution, the date for his swearing-in can be modified if, and only if, the whole national assembly by a majority of vote decides it."
- Jose Vicente Haro, law professor
However, Venezuela's opposition - fresh off the regional election losses to Chavez's party - sees the situation differently, saying if he fails to return on time, new presidential elections must by law be called.
"If there is something that is absolutely clear in Article 231 of the constitution, it is that the commencement of the new presidential term is on the 10th of January - and there is no possibility of a deferment," said Marina Corina Machado, the opposition's main leader in the National Assembly.
Few details have been released about the president's condition. He was treated for post-surgery bleeding and a respiratory infection last week, but according to officials he is now in stable condition.
"Chavez's health is only known by the Cuban regime and its doctors. I believe that it is possible that Chavez himself does not even know his own situation well," Diego Arria, the ex-governor of Caracas said.
What's happens next?
In a television broadcast from the Miraflores palace, Chavez, 58, announced earlier in December he would undergo his fourth operation in the last 18 months.
He acknowledged he may not be able to continue as leader of the Bolivarian Republic, after easily winning presidential elections in October. Before departing, Chavez named his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor.
An intense national debate is now taking place over what happens if Chavez is unable to make his swearing-in ceremony.
Venezuela's constitution article 231 defines a specific presidential term that starts January 10, and the inauguration must be presided over on that day either by the National Assembly or the Supreme Court.
There are no stipulations about what happens if a president is too ill to attend.
Acting-President Maduro told a recent press conference that Chavez is a man of "a thousand miracles", but suggested if he does not make it back in time, the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court would make a ruling.
"We have our prestigious constitutional court, which has shown its great ability to interpret any aspect that is necessary," Maduro said.
But constitutional law professor Jose Vicente Haro told Al Jazeera if the president isn't back by January 10, a parliamentary vote on extending the swearing-in would be necessary.
"It is not the role of the [courts] to take this decision. According to the national constitution, the date for his swearing-in can be modified if, and only if, the whole national assembly by a majority of vote decides it."
If Chavez is unavailable by January 10 and the National Assembly decides to wait, his authority will be granted to the president of the National Assembly for up to 90 days.
Haro, a professor at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, Caracas, told Al Jazeera the National Assembly could further extend that period up to 180 days, but no longer if Chavez still has not returned.
|Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado in Caracas [Reuters]
The National Assembly president will be also elected on January 5, and Cabello looks as if he will be re-elected, pundits say, putting him firmly into play in the country's political hierarchy.
Julio Cesar Pineda, an ex-ambassador of Venezuela, suggested another possibility is for Chavez to be sworn-in at the Venezuelan embassy in Havana, since it's considered sovereign territory.
But Haro said he doubted this could happen. "This thesis was valid in the 19th century, not anymore. The president can be sworn in only in Venezuela."
Friction inside the party?
From the government side, Chavez's most influential allies are projecting an image of unity. However, some observers suggest in his absence, a struggle for power may be underway.
"We should not forget that the Chavismo as a political movement includes groups from radical leftists to moderates," Martin Santivanez, from the Centre for International Development at the University of Navarra, told Al Jazeera.
"The power struggle has always been there and has always been well controlled under the figure of Hugo Chavez."
Observers suggest Maduro was chosen successor by Chavez because he is considered closely aligned with Cuba's communist government. Cabello, meanwhile, is a former military officer with strong ties to the Venezuelan military.
Chavez's naming of Maduro effectively put Cabello third in the hierarchy of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
"I never argue with Chavez's instructions, I obey them," Cabello said after the announcement was made. "I am at the service of the vice-president, at the service of the fatherland."
Santivanez said despite the show of unity, internal jockeying over the PSUV's leadership will continue to play out.
"The struggle of power will still be there, hidden, and won't show up until the entire situation surrounding the president is completely clarified," he said.
While the Bolivarian Revolution has shown few signs of losing steam, Venezuela's economy is facing increasing tumult.
Despite strong oil revenues, government spending has raised the country's budget deficit to 7.8 percent of the economy, which is also expected to contract 3.6 percent in 2013.
Machado, the main opposition leader in parliament, told Al Jazeera that Chavez's health is adding to socio-economic instability.
"Venezuela is going through great uncertainty; shortage of products, inflation, insecurity, bad quality of services. Plus now, the political uncertainty regarding the future of the president is generating great social and institutional tensions.
"The fundamental aspect is the established system. The system is not working and this goes beyond President Chavez," Machado said.
If presidential elections are called again, it is also unclear who will lead the opposition, though Henrique Capriles Radonski - who lost to Chavez by more than 10 percentage points in October - could re-emerge.
"Our generation is living a historical moment ... We - all the citizens - need to react with serenity, firmness and true democratic voice."
- Marina Corina Machado, opposition lawmaker
While Venezuela's opposition lost five of the eight states it held to the PSUV at regional elections in mid-December, Capriles was re-elected governor of Miranda state after defeating a Chavez ally.
"Capriles has shown ... he has sufficient strength for surviving in a very difficult political environment, and the second thing is that Chavismo is not invincible," Santivanez said. "Capriles, in his political career, has only lost against Chavez."
But others disagree that Capriles could make a comeback on the national stage.
"I believe his political momentum has finished. We need new faces," said Cesar Rosales, a student from the Catholic University of El Tachira.
Amid all the questions, Machado said the coming days will be crucial for Venezuela's future.
"Our generation is living a historical moment ... We - all the citizens - need to react with serenity, firmness and true democratic voice," she said.
Follow Elizabeth Melimopoulos on Twitter: @Liz0210
Source: Al Jazeera