Venezuela's vice president said ailing President Hugo Chavez could be sworn in by the Supreme Court later on if he is not able to take the oath of office next week because of his struggle with cancer.
Nicolas Maduro made the comment in a televised interview, dismissing the argument by some opposition leaders that new elections must be called if Mr Chavez does not take office as scheduled on Thursday.
Mr Maduro said Mr Chavez, as a re-elected president, remains in office beyond the swearing-in date stipulated in the constitution and could be sworn in if necessary before the Supreme Court at a date to be determined.
He said the opposition "should respect our constitution". The vice president held up a small copy of the constitution and read aloud passages relating to such procedures.
Opposition leaders have demanded that the government provide more specific information about Mr Chavez's condition, and say a new election should be held within 30 days if the president does not return to Venezuela by inauguration day.
But Mr Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date was not a hard deadline and in saying the 58-year-old president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery in Cuba if necessary.
Mr Maduro expressed hope that eventually "we'll see him and we'll hear him" again". "He has a right to rest and tranquility, and to recuperate," Mr Maduro said on state television, speaking with information minister Ernesto Villegas.
The Venezuelan constitution says the presidential oath should be taken on January 10 before the National Assembly. It also says that if the president is unable to be sworn in before the National Assembly, he may take the oath of office before the Supreme Court and some legal experts have noted that the sentence mentioning the court does not give a date.
The constitution says that if a president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly and a new election should be held within 30 days.
Venezuelan MPs are due to meet in a session that could shed light on what steps may be taken if Mr Chavez is too sick to be sworn in for a new term next week.