CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's parliamentary election will be held on Dec. 6, authorities announced on Monday, ending lengthy speculation over the date for a vote that surveys showed was likely to punish the ruling socialists.
President Nicolas Maduro's ruling Socialist Party currently enjoys a majority in the 167-seat National Assembly, but an economic crisis including widespread shortages and roaring inflation has hurt the government's popularity.
Pressure had been mounting on the National Electoral Council (CNE), with two jailed politicians and dozens of students staging partial hunger strikes to demand a date.
"The National Electoral Council does not act under pressure," its head, Tibisay Lucena, said during a televised speech, chiding hard-line opposition critics who claim the CNE is beholden to the government.
The date is a symbolic one for Venezuela. Maduro's charismatic predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, who founded the left-wing "Chavismo" movement, was first elected to the presidency on Dec. 6, 1998.
His "Chavista" supporters will hold primaries on Sunday to choose their candidates for the parliamentary election, a month after the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition did the same.
"Now we have the date of the battle for a new people's victory," Maduro tweeted, using the military language favored by Chavez during the multiple election wins of his 14-year rule.
The South American OPEC country's fragmented opposition is seen having its best chance in years to recapture the National Assembly amid a biting recession, severe crime and growing dissatisfaction with Maduro.
The opposition needs to lure disillusioned "Chavistas" and reignite the enthusiasm of their own power base. But they face a formidable state propaganda machine, electoral districting that is seen helping the socialists, and an image of being elitist.
"Finally we have a date for the elections!" tweeted opposition leader Henrique Capriles. "Now more than ever #UnityAndChange."
Supporters of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been consuming only liquids for the last 28 days, said he might end his protest, given that one of his demands - a date for the vote - has been met.
Reporting by Caracas newsroom; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Jeffrey Benkoe