By 11am on Sunday, February 12, the sun was already beating down strongly on the many Venezuelan citizens waiting in line to vote. Despite the nearly unbearable heat, nobody was complaining. In fact, the exuberance of the people waiting for three, four, or five hours in line to vote for their candidate in the Democratic Unity Table presidential primary election was contagious. Nothing like this had happened any time recently in Venezuela history and the excitement in the air was palpable.
As an election observer invited by the party — here it’s referred to as the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) — I was lucky enough to experience what many hope will be an historic day for this country. The government of President Hugo Chávez had mounted a disinformation campaign that asked people not to vote in the opposition primary election organized by the MUD and forbade government workers and members of the Chavez political party PSUV from voting. The government told people that no more than 800,000 people would vote and the results would be insignificant. Even MUD supporters were fearful about low voter turnout given the risks many people might have to take in order to go to the polls. Government workers feared for their jobs, contractors thought they would lose their government contracts and business people worried that they would be persecuted by government authorities. Their most optimistic projections were that two million people would come out to the polls.
What happened that day was a remarkable exercise of the democratic process. People lost their fear and came out in droves. Young people mixed with octeganarians at polls I visited. Even some government workers decided that they preferred to honor their democratic rights rather than remain intimidated. The government here frowns on international electoral observers, but when we were introduced in the polling station both the staff and the voters broke out in applause. Even the military personnel who guarded the polls seem to get caught up in the optimism of the moment.
Other than the long lines the election process went very smoothly. In past elections, machines were used that did not provide paper receipts so verification of the results was impossible. New machines were present at this election that allowed each participant to check his or her vote before depositing it in the ballot box. Despite widespread fear that it would happen, no government intimidation happened at the polls I visited.
Last night at 9pm, the results were announced by the MUD — more than three million voters overcame their fears and voted. The winner with 1.8 million votes was Henrique Capriles Radonski, who has promised a government of unity for all Venezuelans. He invited all the candidates he ran against to join him on the stage to demonstrate the unity that exists within the MUD. It is expected that some of them will join his government should he win the election. Now, the challenging work for the MUD will begin: to build a winning campaign that might unseat Hugo Chavez, with his willingness to employ all the powers of the state to stay in office. But for this day, the Venezuelan people enjoyed a breath of fresh air and the promise of a new dialogue on where the country is headed.