Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won a battle over the country's leadership Wednesday, but the political war isn't over.
Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that Chavez will begin a new term on Thursday, even though health problems will prevent him from attending an inauguration before the National Assembly.
But several key questions are looming: How long will Chavez be in Cuba for cancer treatment? How dire is his medical situation? Will simmering political tension about who's running the country boil over?
Opposition politicians have argued that delaying Chavez's swearing-in leaves no one in charge of Venezuela once the current term ends. Chavez allies -- including a majority of lawmakers in the country's congress -- have said he should remain in power while taking the time he needs to recuperate.
The 58-year-old Venezuelan president has been treated for cancer in Cuba for the past month, most recently battling respiratory complications after surgery.
Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling backs the government's position that the chain of command in Venezuela stays the same, even as one presidential term ends and a new one starts.
"Despite the 10th of January beginning a new constitutional period, a new swearing-in is not necessary in his position," said Luisa Estella Morales, president of the Supreme Court of Justice.
Calling it a "historic moment," Morales said that the court's interpretation of the constitution was debated by all the justices.
The Supreme Court weighs in
Morales' remarks addressed a number of questions that have surged over the country's leadership and political future, but they left others unanswered.
Under the constitution, Chavez can be sworn in at a later date before the Supreme Court, she said.
The constitution states that a medical board can be convened to consider whether a president is incapacitated, but at no time has the Supreme Court considered that step, Morales said.
She noted that lawmakers have authorized Chavez's leave from the country for health reasons. And even though he can't make it to Venezuela to be sworn in Thursday, Chavez is neither temporarily nor permanently absent from his presidential post.
A permanent absence would have triggered new elections under the constitution.
Some Chavez supporters have said it is possible for the Supreme Court justices to travel to Cuba and perform the oath of office at the Venezuelan Embassy there. The Supreme Court president said it is too early to think about that.
"We know that it's necessary and undoubtedly something that will be complied with, but at this moment, we could not speculate about when, where and how the president will be sworn in," she said.
Her comments echoed a statement read to lawmakers by the vice president on Tuesday, stating that a delayed inauguration is legal.
That the Supreme Court, stacked with Chavez loyalists, sided with the president's party is not surprising, but it remains to be seen whether the ruling will prevent political turmoil.
Chavez supporters, opposition square off
On Wednesday, both sides called for peace but seemed still to be bracing for a political fight.
Opposition lawmakers declared an emergency and decried the court's ruling as a sign that Chavez's party had swayed the country's judiciary.
In an interview with CNN en Español on Wednesday evening, lawmaker Maria Corina Machado asked for international bodies such as the Organization of American States to weigh in on what she said was a "serious alteration of constitutional order."
"Today Venezuela is practically without a head of state," she said.
Meanwhile, Wednesday night, Vice President Nicolas Maduro headed up a Cabinet meeting and welcomed a group of regional foreign ministers.
In remarks broadcast on national television, he said the court's decision was "sacred," stressed that Chavez's government remains intact and accused the opposition of ignoring the constitution and trying to stir up trouble.