Caracas, Venezuela (AFP)
Venezuela's National Assembly is set to meet on Saturday to elect its leadership and likely thrash out the country's political future as President Hugo Chavez battles cancer in Cuba and debate rages over whether he can be sworn in to a new term next week.
The lawmakers' vote will be a key political test for the assembly's current leader Diosdado Cabello, the regime's number three and a perceived rival for power with Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor.
Both men have denied persistent reports of a power struggle between them and vowed to maintain party unity.
In convening the session, Cabello called on Chavez supporters to rally outside the parliament building "to exhort revolutionary unity and head off the campaign of rumors."
Cabello was expected to win reelection as president of the assembly, which is controlled by Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
But if he fails to keep his post, it would give credence to the view that a fight for dominance in a post-Chavez Venezuela is already under way.
So far, Chavez has refused to relinquish power despite four rounds of surgery and debilitating complications that have kept him out of public view in Havana for nearly a month, the longest stretch in his 14 years in power.
"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 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."
Maduro, for his part, vehemently rejected that position in a television appearance late Friday, laying out a legal rationale for delaying the president's swearing-in to a new six-year term for an unspecified period of time while keeping Chavez in office.
With a pocket-sized constitution in hand, Maduro argued that the charter provides "a dynamic flexibility" that allows the president to take the oath of office before the Supreme Court at some later date.
It was the clearest signal yet that Chavez, who is fighting off complications from cancer surgery in Cuba, will not be taking the oath of office as scheduled on January 10.
Chavez, 58, was re-elected on October 7 despite his debilitating battle with cancer and the strongest opposition challenge yet to his 14-year rule in Venezuela, an OPEC member with the world's largest proven oil reserves.
He 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.
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.
The rector of the Central University of Venezuela, Cecilia Garcia Arocha, proposed sending a team of medical experts to Havana to assess his condition. Opposition leader Antonio Ledezma said it should include opposition figures.
Cancer was first detected by Cuban doctors in June 2011, but the Venezuelan government has never revealed what form of the disease Chavez is battling.
Beyond the constitutional controversies surrounding his prolonged absence, Venezuelans also are coming to terms with the death or disability of their longtime leader.
AFP, January 5, 2013