The Venezuelan opposition has a new leader. Yesterday, after a grueling five month campaign, the Venezuelan opposition under the umbrella of the Mesa de Unidad Democratica went to the polls to chose their united candidate who will face President Chavez in the October 7 general elections. Vying for the top place where five candidates: one parliamentarian, two governors, a former party leader and a former diplomat.
After the votes were placed and the results were tabulated, one clear winner emerged.
Henrique Capriles Radonski, Governor of Miranda State (the nation's second most populous state and home to 1/2 of Caracas) was the winner. Capriles, a 39 year old governor, has been involved in Venezuelan politics for more than a decade. First as the youngest president of the Parliament in Venezuelan history; then Mayor of Baruta Municipality in greater Caracas and finally Governor of Miranda state. Capriles has never lost an election.
There are two important takeaways to yesterday's election. First was the mandate. Capriles was chosen by 1.8 million voters -- a full 64% of the turnout. He received nearly one million votes more than his main challenger, Zulia State Governor Pablo Perez. This is a powerful message both to the Venezuelans seeking a change from President Chavez; and for the pro-Government population seeking to paint the opposition as still divided.
Second, and perhaps more important, was voter turnout. Roughly 3,000,000 voters participated in the primary. This represents 16% of the electorate. Experts (including myself) estimated that with 2,000,000 votes the opposition would be able to declare success. Yesterday's voter turnout was significantly higher -- shielding the opposition from any criticism that would have come with a low turnout.
Yesterday marked the beginning of Venezuela's general election. The contest will be a difficult one. President Chavez is entrenched in power; and will use the not-unsubstantial power of the office (and its corresponding control over the oil wealth) to hold onto power. But now, the opposition also has a man to unite around. This is a pivotal election for the Venezuelan people; perhaps their most important yet. Through their participation, they are beginning it right.