Caracas: A top Venezuelan opposition leader called Sunday for street protests if the government goes ahead with a plan to delay the inauguration of ailing President Hugo Chavez, who has suffered complications following his latest round of cancer surgery.

Julio Borges, national coordinator of the opposition Justice First party, also promised to file complaints with unspecified international organisations, if the constitutionally mandated January 10 swearing-in ceremony does not take place.

“People should get ready to protest and rebel against what will be a failure to uphold the constitution,” said Borges. “We are preparing a real campaign, which will involve going to institutions, countries, embassies and organisations outside of the country to let them know that authorities are trying to twist the constitution due to an internal problem.”

Chavez was re-elected on October 7 despite his debilitating battle with cancer and the strongest opposition challenge yet to his 14-year rule in Venezuela, an OPEC member with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.

Since then, Chavez has undergone a fourth round of surgery in Cuba and, according to the government, developed a “serious pulmonary infection” that has led to a “respiratory insufficiency”.

In the wake of word that Chavez was suffering complications, Vice President Nicolas Maduro called the swearing-in ceremony a “formality” and said the 58-year-old’s inauguration can be indefinitely delayed without him having to give up the powers of the presidency, even on a temporary basis.

With a pocket-sized constitution in hand, Maduro argued Friday that the charter provides “a dynamic flexibility” that allows the president to take the oath of office before the Supreme Court at some later date.

The position was reaffirmed Sunday by Venezuelan Attorney General Cilia Flores, who argued in a television interview that Chavez, who has not been seen in public in weeks, “could be sworn in upon his return in front of the Supreme Court”.

However, according to Borges, that would be unconstitutional.

“The constitution established a clear rule,” he said. “When the president-elect cannot show up at his inauguration and his absence is absolute, then another popularly elected person must step in. In this case, it is the National Assembly speaker.”

Under the constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term. The National Assembly speaker runs the country in the interim.

On Saturday, Chavez’s allies staged a show of unity, re-electing the ruling party’s Diosdado Cabello as parliamentary speaker.

The closing of ranks by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) came as it emerged as all but certain that illness will keep Chavez from being sworn in to a new six-year term on Thursday as scheduled.

“The president will continue being president beyond January 10, nobody should have any doubt about that,” said Cabello after his election, accusing the opposition of fomenting a “coup d’etat.”

Cabello’s re-election was intended in part to answer persistent rumors of a power struggle within the regime during Chavez’s more than three-week absence, the longest stretch in his 14-year presidency.

Despite doubts about his fitness to serve, Chavez has refused to relinquish the office, leaving Maduro in charge of running the country without transferring the full powers of the presidency.

The burly, mustachioed Maduro has been all over the state-run media in his quasi presidential role.

Venezuelans have seen him making speeches to red-shirted followers, watching from the visitor’s gallery as Chavistas reasserted their dominance over the National Assembly, and talking in emotional tones about Chavez’s difficult battle with cancer.