Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could be sworn in before the Supreme Court even if his cancer treatment keeps him out of the country beyond his January 10 inauguration date, his vice president has said.
Nicolas Maduro said on Monday the constitution would be applied, without indicating whether Chavez would be sworn in from Venezuela or from Cuba, where he is recovering from his fourth cancer operation since June 2011.
Chavez supporters claim that their leader can be sworn in late in accordance with Venezuela's 1999 constitution approved by socialist ex-paratrooper Chavez in his first year in office.
Analysts say Chavez could not take an oath of office abroad, even if it is at a Venezuelan embassy with members of the Supreme Court present.
"If his permission needs to be extended beyond January 10, the constitution would go into action and he would have to take the oath before the Supreme Court," Maduro said on state television after a Christmas Eve mass in Caracas
to pray for Chavez's speedy recovery.
Henrique Capriles, the Venezuelan opposition leader who Chavez defeated in the October elections, said on Monday that Chavez would not be stripped of the presidency if his illness prevents him from taking part in the inauguration.
"A person doesn't lose the presidency because he can't take over the office on the established day. That's doesn't take away his presidency. That is very important," Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, said.
All Chavez cabinet ministers joined Maduro and clergy in the mass at San Francisco Church to pray for the leader's health and his return to the country, with some even making offerings before the altar.
Under Venezuelan law, if Chavez resigns before the inauguration or the president otherwise has an "absolute absence," National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello would temporarily take office and elections would be held within 30 days.
Before flying to Havana, Chavez designated Maduro - a former bus driver and union activist - as his political heir.
Chavez, 58, is experiencing a "slight improvement" in his condition as he follows doctors' orders to rest, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a radio and television address.
He said the president is in touch with his closest relatives and has been analyzing the results of regional elections on December 16 in which the ruling party won 20 of 23 governorships, snatching four states previously run by the opposition.
The face of the Latin American left for more than a decade and a firebrand critic of US "imperialism," Chavez asserted before embarking on his arduous re-election campaign earlier this year that he was cancer-free.
But he was later forced to admit he had suffered a recurrence of the disease. He returned to Cuba, a key Venezuelan ally, for surgery and follow-up treatment.
Venezuela has never confirmed the president's cancer type, nor which organs are affected.