On Sunday, Venezuela held elections for 165 seats in the National Assembly -- a loose equivalent to the mid-term elections for Congress in the U.S. -- and Venezuelans took the first step toward building a future that is democratic, inclusive and hopeful.
The desire for change was clear: 52% of the people voted for alternative candidates, versus 48% for the Chavez-controlled Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, a.k.a. PSUV.
Equally clear, however, was the damage that has been done to our democratic systems by the ruling government. Even though the PSUV won less than 48% of the vote, it holds 60% of the seats. In Caracas, where the PSUV had less than 50% of the vote - it will keep 7 out of the 10 seats that were in play.
With this election, Venezuela is now at a major inflection point, teetering between two possibilities: Cuban-style authoritarianism mixed with economic and social deterioration, or a new path of democratic and economic vitality.
The history of other repressive regimes shows us the second scenario is not only possible, but it can happen peacefully and democratically, so long as several critical ingredients are in place.
The first ingredient, a popular rejection of the status quo, already has materialized. The fact that 52% of Venezuelans voted for alternative candidates shows that they no longer believe the Chavez government can deliver on his promise to make their lives better.
As a leader of Voluntad Popular, I have visited hundreds of communities across the country. I have never seen confidence in government so low.
This is not an ideological sentiment, but a practical sentiment. The infrastructure, institutions and social fabric of Venezuela are deteriorating, and people realize the Chavez government has been the problem, not the solution. When a global oil power that spends tens of billions abroad can't keep the lights on at home, people draw their own conclusions.
However, disapproval with the ruling government is one thing; the willingness to vote for something else is another matter entirely.
We in the political opposition must provide the second ingredient: new leaders and new ideas.
Even though many Venezuelans abhor the present, they have no interest in returning to the past. Inequality, poverty and corruption are decades-old problems, of which the 1998 election of Chavez was just a symptom.
To play on a famous statement from a U.S. presidential election, "It's about the future, stupid."
In order to win the hearts and minds of the voters, new leaders will show how they plan to fulfill the promises that Chavez made early on, but in a way that is inclusive, democratic and - above all - competent.
Our approach to the 2012 elections is an excellent place to start the process of defining ourselves by the future instead of the past.
Nothing screams "old and elitist" like backroom decision-making. And nothing would signal our break with the past like an open and transparent election to choose the alternative candidates who compete for every major post, including 24 governors, 335 mayors, and the next president of Venezuela.
It's not just the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do.
A national primary election would electrify the people and give them a larger stake in the outcome. Today parties pick candidates in hopes they can build a base of popular support; a candidate selected by voters already has one.
The third critical ingredient for change is the engagement of the international community. Repressive regimes do not endure change willingly -- and Venezuela is no exception.
The fact that the Chavez government managed to hold more than 60% of the seats with less than 48% of the vote simply exposes how much damage the ruling party has done to our democratic systems.
The deck will remain stacked against us in countless ways -- from control of the media, control of the judiciary, manipulation of election rules and intimidation of dissenters. International institutions must be willing to highlight and condemn violations of human rights and democracy.
The Inter American Court on Human Rights will soon hear a case concerning one of Mr. Chavez's most blatant abuses of power: the illegal disqualification of hundreds opposition leaders from key political elections that they had been poised to win.
The Inter American Court's ruling on this practice can set a major and important precedent not only in Venezuela, but across all of the Americas. It will help ensure that the voters in 2012 will have the leadership choices they deserve. This is just one example of how multilateral international institutions can play an important role in supporting the rule of law and human rights.
Sunday's National Assembly elections show that green shoots of democracy are emerging, but they must be nurtured. The next two years will be pivotal, not just for Venezuelans, but for democracies all over the world.
Leopoldo Lopez is the National Coordinator of Voluntad Popular, a grassroots movement dedicated to building an open, democratic and inclusive future for Venezuelans. As mayor of Chacao from 2000 to 2008, Lopez won Transparency International's Award for the most transparent municipality in Venezuela.
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