The vote could open the way for an election for a new president if the leftist leader is defeated, National Electoral Council Vice-President Ezequiel Zamora said on Tuesday.

"It was agreed for August 15," Zamora told reporters after a meeting of the council's directors.

The opposition, which has battled for elections for more than a year, feared delays in holding the August referendum could block their chances of ousting Chavez's leftwing government at the ballot box.

According to Venezuela's constitution, if Chavez had lost a recall held after 19 August, his vice-president would take over until presidential elections in December 2006.

If Chavez loses the 15 August referendum, the constitution dictates elections must be held within 30 days.

Power struggle

Political confrontation has rattled the world's fifth largest oil exporter since Chavez survived a coup more than two years ago.

Former US President Jimmy Carter last year helped broker a deal that put forward the recall referendum as the best solution to the bitter crisis.

Chavez, a former army officer elected in 1998, says most Venezuelans back his efforts to use the country's huge oil resources to battle chronic poverty. He has vowed victory in the referendum.

But his opponents say the populist leader's self-styled revolution for the poor has failed and pushed Venezuela closer to a Cuban-style communist state.

They say his firebrand style has driven off investors and sharpened tensions between the social classes.