CARACAS (AFP) - Venezuelan lawmakers gathered Saturday for a key leadership vote and debate as President Hugo Chavez’s battle with cancer appeared almost certain to delay his swearing-in for a new six year term.

Hundreds of supporters, dressed in the flaming red of his socialist revolution, chanted for Chavez outside the National Assembly in a show of unity during a period of high uncertainty about the country’s future.

“I love him, I want him and I hope he recovers,” said Maria Mateus, chanting with friends outside the palatial Spanish colonial-style building: “Here the one who rules is Chavez, and the revolution.”

Vice President Nicolas Maduro signaled on Friday that Chavez, who is recovering in Havana from his fourth and most difficult round of cancer surgery, would not be able to take the oath of office on schedule January 10.

Arguing for continuity, Maduro laid out a legal rationale for indefinitely delaying Chavez’s swearing-in without him giving up the powers of the presidency, even on a temporary basis, as he fights for his health.

The country’s main opposition coalition insists that Chavez must take at least a temporary leave if his health keeps him from taking the oath of office on January 10, a date established by Venezuela’s constitution.

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. With the inauguration just days away, the National Assembly session has become the main arena for airing of the political conflict, although there was no doubt the government’s position will prevail.

The National Assembly leadership vote, held at the start of every year, was also being closely watched here for signs of jockeying for power within the regime amid the uncertainty over Chavez’s health.

The vote will be a key test for the assembly’s current leader, Diosdado Cabello, the regime’s number three and a perceived rival of Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. Both men have denied persistent reports of a power struggle between them and vowed to maintain party unity. In convening the session, Cabello called on Chavez supporters to rally outside the parliament building “to exhort revolutionary unity and head off the campaign of rumors.”

Cabello was expected to win re-election as president of the assembly, which is controlled by Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

But if he fails to keep his post, it would give credence to the view that a fight for dominance in a post-Chavez Venezuela is already under way.

So far, Chavez has refused to relinquish power despite health complications that have kept him out of public view in Havana for nearly a month, the longest stretch in his 14 years in power.

The government said this week that since undergoing surgery last month in Havana the president has developed a “serious pulmonary infection” that has led to a “respiratory insufficiency.”

“The official version of what is happening is unsustainable,” the head of the main opposition coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, said in an interview with AFP and digital news outlet Noticias24.

Aveledo said it would make more sense for the government to acknowledge “the truth” and use it to prepare the country for what is to come. But it “doesn’t want to admit that the president is absent.” Maduro, for his part, vehemently rejected that position in a television appearance late Friday. With a pocket-sized constitution in hand, Maduro argued 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.

Chavez, 58, 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.

Cancer was first detected by Cuban doctors in June 2011, but the Venezuelan government has never revealed what form of the disease Chavez is battling.