Jun 22, 5:02 PM EDT

Venezuela sets date for elections after mounting pressure


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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela will hold legislative elections Dec. 6, election officials announced Monday after months of mounting pressure from local opposition groups and international observers.

The South American country's laws mandate that National Assembly balloting be held this year, but elections officials had delayed setting a date, raising concerns the contest would be canceled.

In her announcement, elections council head Tibisay Lucena said the organization had always intended to set a date and was not reacting to public pressure.

"These attacks and phony analyses from national experts and international figures have mostly been very ignorant," she said.

The date is timed to commemorate the first election of the late President Hugo Chavez, who launched the country's socialist revolution when voters chose him overwhelmingly on Dec. 6, 1998.

The ruling socialist party currently holds a majority in the legislature, but polls indicate that if the election were held today, the opposition coalition would win in a landslide. The 29-party coalition is benefiting from widespread discontent with President Nicolas Maduro, driven by mounting shortages, high inflation and rampant crime.

Opposition parties have not captured a legislative majority since Chavez, who was Maduro's mentor, won the presidency more than 16 years ago. They have lost every recent national election, and currently hold about a third of the seats in the legislature.

The opposition coalition held legislative primaries in May, drawing a 7 percent turnout, and the socialist party will hold primaries Sunday.

Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez began a hunger strike in May demanding that the government set a date for the elections and allow international observers to supervise the contest. It was not immediately known if Lopez would end his strike now that an elections date is set. He has also demanded the release of imprisoned politicians like himself.

Lopez has been imprisoned for more than a year on charges related to his alleged involvement with sometimes bloody anti-government street protests in 2014.

Lucena said South America's UNASUR group of nations, generally seen as friendly to Maduro's administration, would be allowed to observe the elections.

Some candidates who will be on the ballot are still jailed on charges related to last year's protests, including Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of the restive city of San Cristobal. In a quirk of Venezuelan law, a win in the general election could spring these candidates from jail because legislators receive immunity from prosecution during their terms.

Speaking on national television after the announcement, Maduro said the selection of a date that marks the 17th anniversary of Chavez's election reminded him of the tremendous love and loyalty Venezuelans feel for the late president.

"I said to myself, `Comandante Chavez, the people are not going to fail you. December 6 will be a great new victory,'" Maduro said.

Maduro's presidential term runs until 2019.

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Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier

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