- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 9, 2013

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s top judge said Wednesday that the upcoming inauguration of President Hugo Chavez can legally be postponed, siding with the government in a heated dispute with the opposition while the ailing leader struggles with complications a month after cancer surgery in Cuba.

Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales made the statement after the opposition urged the top court to rule that the government was violating the constitution by putting off the swearing-in for a new term, which had been scheduled for Thursday. Lawmakers voted Tuesday to delay the ceremony, allowing Mr. Chavez to take the oath of office at a later date before the Supreme Court.

Ms. Morales also said that the Supreme Court has not considered an opposition demand to appoint a panel of doctors to evaluate whether Mr. Chavez is fit to remain in office after remaining out of public view since Dec. 11.

While the opposition has not yet filed a formal court challenge to the delayed inauguration, Ms. Morales announced her decision in response to a request for a legal opinion by a woman she declined to identify. She said the inauguration can be performed before the Supreme Court at a time and place to be determined.

“We know it’s necessary, and undoubtedly the inauguration is going to be carried out, but at this time we can’t anticipate when,” Ms. Morales told reporters at a news conference.

The constitutional debate takes place against a backdrop of complaints that the government is withholding complete information about the condition of Mr. Chavez, who has not spoken publicly since his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba four weeks ago.

“It’s very evident that he isn’t governing, and what they want us to believe is that he’s governing, and they’re lying,” opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told the Venezuelan television channel Globovision.

He insisted that the National Assembly president should take over temporarily as interim leader and that the Supreme Court should appoint a panel of doctors to determine Mr. Chavez’s condition.

The Venezuelan Constitution says the oath of office should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10. The charter adds that if he is unable to be sworn in by the National Assembly, the president may take the oath before the Supreme Court, without explicitly stating a date.

The opposition has argued that the only legal way to postpone the ceremony is for congress to approve a “temporary absence” for the president, leaving the head of the National Assembly as interim president for 90 days, a period that could be extended for an additional 90 days.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke the news that Mr. Chavez would not be able to attend the scheduled inauguration in a letter to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, which he announced he had received on Tuesday.

While leaders of both the pro- and anti-Chavez camps say they do not expect violence to break out Thursday, the government called for the socialist president’s supporters to gather for a demonstration at the presidential palace that day. Officials also said that some foreign leaders were coming to visit. Bolivian President Evo Morales and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica have confirmed they will attend.

The government said earlier this week that Mr. Chavez is in a “stable situation” receiving treatment owing to a severe respiratory infection.