Venezuela has signaled that cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez will be unable to be sworn in to a new term next week, laying out a legal rationale for delaying the oath-taking ceremony.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday that the ailing leader could take the oath of office at some later date before the Supreme Court without giving up the presidency in the interim.
With a pocket-sized constitution in hand, Maduro argued that the charter provides "a dynamic flexibility" that guarantees that Chavez's re-election will be respected.
He vehemently rejected the opposition's insistence that if Chavez is prevented by ill health from taking the oath of office on schedule January 10 he must at least temporarily give up the presidency to the speaker of the National Assembly.
Under Venezuela's constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six year term.
Chavez, 58, underwent his fourth round of surgery more than four weeks ago and has developed a "severe pulmonary infection" that has raised doubts about his fitness to continue serving.
He has not been seen in public in nearly four weeks, and only his family, a handful of senior officials and his Cuban medical team are known to have seen him as he battles to regain his health in a Havana hospital.
Close allies like Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, have expressed concern over his health and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sent an envoy to Havana to inquire about his condition, a source in the Brazilian presidency said Friday.
Before leaving for Cuba, Chavez named Maduro as his political successor, but there have been persistent rumors of a struggle between him and National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer.
Upon their return from Havana, both men went out of their way to deny the rumors and to vow to remain united.
The National Assembly meets on Saturday to elect its leadership in a key test for the regime. Cabello was expected to be re-elected, but his failure to keep the post would revive the perception of an internal split.
In convening the session, Cabello called on Chavez supporters to rally outside the parliament in a show of support.
The closing of ranks comes amid a surge of demands on social networks and by opposition leaders for more detailed information from doctors about Chavez's condition.
"The official version of what is happening is unsustainable," the head of the main opposition coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, said in an interview with AFP news agency and digital news outlet Noticias24.
Aveledo said it would make more sense for the government to acknowledge "the truth" and use it to prepare the country for what is to come.
But it "doesn't want to admit that the president is absent".
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas disclosed that Chavez, who was convalescing in Havana after a fourth round of surgery last month, was suffering from a "severe pulmonary infection" that had led to a "respiratory insufficiency".
He also accused the international media of waging a "psychological war" to destabilise Venezuela and finish off its socialist revolution.