CARACAS — Allies of President Hugo Chavez on Saturday chose to keep the same National Assembly president — a man who could be in line to step in as a caretaker leader of Venezuela in some circumstances.
Diosdado Cabello was retained as legislative leader in a vote by a show of hands. Chavez’s allies hold a majority of the 165 congressional seats.
Just five days remain until Chavez’s scheduled inauguration on Thursday, and government officials are suggesting the swearing-in could be delayed as the president fights a severe respiratory infection after cancer surgery in Cuba.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday night that Chavez could 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. His comments sent the strongest signal yet that the government may seek to postpone the 58-year-old president’s inauguration for a new term more than three weeks after he underwent cancer surgery in Cuba.
Maduro’s statement in a televised interview generated new friction between the government and opposition, which argues that according to the constitution, the inauguration should occur Thursday before the National Assembly. Opposition leaders have argued that if Chavez doesn’t make it back to Caracas by that date, the president of the National Assembly should take over as interim president.
That would be Cabello, a longtime Chavez ally who is widely considered to wield influence within the military.
If Chavez dies or is declared incapacitated, the constitution says that a new election should be called and held within 30 days, and Chavez has said Maduro should be the candidate. There have been no public signs of friction between the vice president and Cabello, who have often appeared side by side during Chavez’s illness and have vowed to remain united.
Maduro and other Cabinet ministers attended the session, and Cabello reiterated that there is no basis to rumors of divisions between him and the vice president.
If the government delays the swearing-in and Chavez’s condition improves, the president and his allies could have more time to plan an orderly transition and prepare for a new presidential election.
Cabello’s selection quashed speculation about possible political reshuffling in the midst of Chavez’s health crisis, pointing instead to an effort for continuity and stability within the party leadership.
‘‘We’re experiencing political stability,’’ Soto Rojas said as he announced the choices of Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Referring to Chavez, the former legislative leader said: ‘‘Onward, Comandante. . . . We’re continuing with the Bolivarian process.’’
The opposition had called for an inclusive leadership to encourage dialogue, but Chavez’s party did not include any opposition lawmakers among the congressional leaders, and opposition lawmaker Ismael Garcia said the choices represented ‘‘intolerance.’’
Hundreds of Chavez’s supporters gathered outside the National Assembly to show their support, some holding flags and pictures of the president.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas reiterated on Saturday that Chavez is still in office, saying in comments reported by the state news agency that ‘‘Chavez has won a thousand battles and has reappeared when no one expected.’’
Chavez was reelected in October to another six-year term, and two months later he said that his pelvic cancer had returned.