CARACAS — Venezuela is heading toward a constitutional crisis as allies of Hugo Chavez and the opposition accuse each other of using the socialist president’s battle with cancer to plot a coup.
At issue is whether Chavez will appear in Caracas this week to be sworn in for a third, six-year term. The president was reelected Oct. 7 but is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba.
While the constitution mandates that Chavez take an oath before Congress on Jan. 10, it also allows for the Supreme Court to administer the oath in exceptional circumstances, a fact that Vice President Nicolas Maduro says makes the scheduled ceremony a mere ‘‘formality’’ that can be delayed.
The Supreme Court is controlled by the government and will almost certainly rule that Chavez can continue in power even if he can’t be sworn in because of ill health, said Diego Moya- Ocampos, a Venezuelan political analyst at IHS Global Insight in London.
Such a move could be considered an ‘‘institutional coup’’ and may generate instability within factions of Venezuela’s armed forces and the government, he said.
‘‘We’re going to see a breach of the constitutional order and an institutional coup where state institutions are used to undermine the democratic order,’’ Moya-Ocampos, a former chief secretary to the Venezuelan attorney general’s office, said in a phone interview from London. ‘‘Venezuela’s armed forces act as a form of constitutional police. If such a blatant breach of the constitutional order takes place, it would create behind-the- scenes tensions.’’
Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela also are warning that the country’s stability is at risk due to the tensions surrounding Chavez’s health, the Associated Press reported.
Officials of the Venezuelan Bishops Conference said they feared a potentially dangerous and violent situation. ‘‘The nation’s political and social stability is at serious risk,’’ said Bishop Diego Padron, the president of the conference.
The leaders also criticized the government for failing to provide more details about Chavez’s condition nearly a month after his operation.
Chavez, 58, is experiencing a ‘‘severe’’ respiratory infection that is making it hard for him to breathe after undergoing his fourth surgery in 18 months, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said earlier this month.
Maduro said last week that opponents of Chavez are distorting the constitution by saying that he must show up for the Jan. 10 swearing-in ceremony or be declared ineligible to govern.
That criticism was echoed by Attorney General Cilia Flores, who said Sunday that the former paratrooper’s landslide election victory holds sway over the Jan. 10 inauguration date.
‘‘The important and determinant date here is Oct. 7 in which the people expressed their sovereignty and that has to be respected,’’ Flores said in an interview with Telesur network. ‘‘We have a president that’s been reelected and holds the office. He already has the presidential sash and the symbols of power.’’
Chavez will still be recovering in Cuba from his operation on Jan. 10, said Flores, who is also Maduro’s partner.
On Jan. 10, Chavez ‘‘remains in power and will be sworn in whenever possible,’’ Maduro said in an hourlong interview broadcast on state television Jan. 4. He warned the opposition against trying to carry out a ‘‘coup’’ by interpreting to its advantage the constitution’s provisions for a presidential succession.