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Opposition hopeful as Venezuela sets legislative vote

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela will hold legislative elections December 6, officials said Monday, June 22, setting a date after weeks of pressure from opposition groups hoping to deal President Nicolas Maduro's socialist party a crippling defeat.

With Venezuela's economy in recession, oil revenues plunging and consumers facing chronic shortages of basic goods, Maduro's approval rating has sunk to 28%.

That has turned into a crisis for the movement founded by his mentor, Hugo Chavez, which risks losing the National Assembly for the first time since the late leftist firebrand came to power in 1999.

An April survey by polling firm Datanalisis found Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies had 25% support against 45.8% for the opposition.

The opposition's fragile coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), had accused election officials of dragging their feet on setting an election date because of Maduro and the PSUV's poor poll numbers.

The head of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, denied the charge, accusing opposition groups of seeking to "discredit" the organization.

"The National Electoral Council does not act under pressure," she said.

Lucena announced the official campaign period would run from November 13 to December 3, with candidate registration from August 3 to 7.

Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has been on hunger strike for 30 days to insist the government set a date for the election and guarantee that international observers are on hand.

Lopez, who was arrested in February 2014 on charges of inciting violence during massive protests that shook Venezuela last year, has lost 15 kilograms (33 pounds) at the military prison where he is being held.

Another jailed opposition figure, Daniel Ceballos, also went on hunger strike for 20 days, as have dozens of supporters who have set up protest camps in Caracas.

According to rights group Prison Forum, a total of 31 opposition figures are in jail over last year's protests, which left 43 people dead.

The setting of an election date "is a first step, but the political prisoners must still be freed," said Freddy Guevara, national coordinator of Popular Will, the radical opposition party founded by Lopez.

Populist spending spree?

"At last we have a date for the elections! Now more than ever we need unity and change," opposition leader Henrique Capriles wrote on Twitter.

"Every Venezuelan has the strength to make it happen," added Capriles, who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential vote to Maduro after Chavez's death.

Maduro for his part tweeted: "We now have a date for the battle for a new victory for the people."

Venezuela' s one-chamber legislature has 165 seats. Currently, the PSUV and its allies hold 99 and the opposition 66.

The PSUV has been able to use its 3/5 majority to grant Maduro the power to govern by decree.

The legislature granted Maduro decree powers for national defense and security matters in March amid a confrontation with the United States, which the president accused of backing a coup attempt against him.

Political analyst Luis Vicente Leon of polling firm Datanalisis said the movement founded by Chavez "has never faced a more difficult election."

Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves, has been hit hard by plunging crude prices in recent months, exacerbating an already painful economic crisis.

Leon predicted Maduro's government would ramp up "populist economic policy measures" to counter the crisis and win votes among the poor – something Chavez was often accused of doing. – Jordi Miro, AFP / Rappler.com