The Venezuelan government has said President Hugo Chavez can begin his new six-year term in office next week, even if he is too ill to attend a swearing-in ceremony.

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro's comments were the clearest indication yet that the government is preparing to delay the swearing-in while avoiding naming a replacement for Mr Chavez.

In power since 1999, the 58-year-old socialist leader has not been seen in public for more than three weeks.

Allies say he is in delicate condition after a fourth operation in two years for an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area.

The political opposition argues that Mr Chavez's presence on 10 January in Cuba - where there are rumours he may be dying - is tantamount to the president's stepping down.

But Mr Maduro, waving a copy of the constitution during an interview with state TV, said there was no problem if Mr Chavez was sworn in at a later date by the nation's Supreme Court.

"The interpretation being given is that the 2013-2019 constitutional period starts on 10 January. In the case of President Chavez, he is a re-elected president and continues in his functions," he said.

"The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved in the Supreme Court at the time the court deems appropriate in coordination with the head of state."

That could be interpreted in different ways: that Mr Maduro and other allies trust Mr Chavez will recover eventually, or that they are buying time to cement succession plans before going into an election.

Despite his serious medical condition, there was no reason to declare Mr Chavez's "complete absence" from office, Mr Maduro said.

Such a declaration would trigger a new vote within 30 days, according to Venezuela's charter.

Mr Chavez was conscious and fighting to recover, said Mr Maduro, who travelled to Havana to see his boss this week.

"We will have the Commander well again," he said.

Mr Maduro, 50, whom Mr Chavez named as his preferred successor should he be forced to leave office, said Venezuela's opposition had no right to go against the will of the people as expressed in the 7 October vote to re-elect the president.

"The president right now is president ... Don't mess with the people. Respect democracy."

Despite insisting Mr Chavez remains president and there is hope for recovery, the government has acknowledged the gravity of his condition, saying he is having trouble breathing due to a "severe" respiratory infection.

Mr Chavez's abrupt exit from the political scene would be a huge shock for Venezuela.

His oil-financed socialism has made him a hero to the poor, while critics call him a dictator seeking to impose Cuban-style communism on Venezuelans.

Should Mr Chavez leave office, a new election is likely to pitch former bus driver and union activist Mr Maduro against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state.

Mr Capriles lost to Mr Chavez in the October presidential election, but won an impressive 44% of the vote.

Though past polls have shown him to be more popular than all of Mr Chavez's allies, the equation is now different given Mr Maduro has received the president's personal blessing - a factor likely to fire up Mr Chavez's fanatical supporters.

His condition is being watched closely by Latin American allies that have benefited from his help, as well as investors attracted by Venezuela's lucrative and widely traded debt.