CARACAS: Venezuela's top opposition leader on Tuesday urged the Supreme Court to rule on whether cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez's re-inauguration can be postponed, as his government argues.
"I do not know what the judges of the Supreme Court are waiting for. Right now in Venezuela, without any doubt whatsoever, a constitutional conflict has arisen," Henrique Capriles said.
Chavez is scheduled to take the oath of office on Thursday following his October re-election win.
But he is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba, his fourth operation in 18 months, and it not clear he will make it to the ceremony in Caracas.
The government says the swearing is a mere formality that can be delayed, but the opposition says the constitution must be respected.
The charter says new elections must be held within 30 days if the president-elect dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.
"There must be a response from our institutions in the face of this conflict," said Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October vote but gave him a run for his money.
Capriles also urged Latin American leaders to stay away from a pro-Chavez rally convened by the government for Thursday in place of the inauguration.
So far Uruguay's President Jose Mugica, Bolivia's President Evo Morales and Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino of Ecuador are the only ones to confirm their attendance.
Capriles urged regional leaders not to succumb to "a game by a political party" alluding to Venezuela's ruling party. He mentioned by name the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia and Ecuador.
Earlier, the country's main opposition coalition turned to international organizations for support.
It warned the Organization of American States of an "alteration of the constitutional order" if Chavez is unable to take the oath of office as scheduled but his government remains in charge anyway.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said late Monday that Chavez's medical condition had remained "stationary" since the latest complication from surgery was reported four days ago.
Chavez is suffering from a severe pulmonary infection that has resulted in weak breathing, officials have said.
The Catholic church waded into the controversy for the first time Monday, warning that it would be "morally unacceptable" to override the constitution and that Chavez's prolonged absence had put the country's stability at risk.
But the leftist government and the conservative opposition brandish conflicting interpretations of the constitution.
Chavez's allies call the president's swearing-in a "formality" that can be fulfilled sometime after January 10.
In a letter to OAS Secretary General Miguel Insulza, the head of the main opposition coalition Ramon Aveledo argued that, under the constitution, the current administration's term ends January 10 and cannot be extended.
Under this reasoning, new elections would have to be called.
"We rule out absolutely nothing," said National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, when asked at a news conference if Chavez's return in time for the inauguration had been ruled out.
"But we're not going to get to the 10th and not know what we are going to do. We know what we're going to do," he said.
Part of the plan is to hold a huge pro-Chavez rally, with the participation of as yet unidentified foreign leaders, in a reminder of the 55 percent support that won the leftist firebrand re-election to another six-year term October 7.
A key opposition leader, meanwhile, has called for street protests if the government pushes past January 10 without a swearing-in, raising the risks of confrontation in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.
"People should get ready to protest and rebel against what will be a failure to uphold the constitution," said Julio Borges, national coordinator of the opposition Justice First party.
The government, however, gained support from Latin American heavyweight Brazil, which said a constitutional process was in place to assure continuity in the event Chavez is unable to be sworn in.
Throughout his illness, which was first detected in June 2011, the 58-year-old Chavez has refused to relinquish the powers of the presidency.