What’s Next Venezuela is proud to welcome Joel D. Hirst as our newest contributor. Currently, Hirst is a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, and a Principal for Cordoba Group International. Formerly, Hirst was a Fellow in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. He also served as a U.S. Agency for International Development Country Representative in Uganda (2008-2010) and Acting Country Representative and Deputy Country Representative in Venezuela (2004-2008). He tweets at www.twitter.com/joelhirst.
This Sunday, February 12th, the Venezuelan opposition – led by the Table for Democratic Unity (MUD for its acronym in Spanish) – is going to the polls to choose the candidate who will face Venezuela’s authoritarian regime in the already less-than free and fair elections of October 7, 2012.
President Hugo Chávez seems to be concerned. He has already gone out of his way on various occasions to say that the primaries are an “imperial strategy”; that he “does not care who wins” and that voter participation will be very low. Over this last point, Chávez and his proxy – newly appointed National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello – have been particularly insistent.
For this reason, it is particularly important to set the record straight on voter turnout in primary elections. In the recent Republican primary vote in New Hampshire, voter turnout was approximately 245,000. Taken from an estimated total of 990,000 eligible voters, this represents 25% of the electorate. In Florida, the voter turnout during the recent primary election was 1.6 million. Total voter registration in Florida is 11.1 million, making this turnout roughly 14% of the total. South Carolina turnout was roughly 590,000; with a total of registered voters at roughly 2.5 million, the turnout in the state registers at 23%. Naturally, I have left off the caucus states because that process is significantly different than a simple vote.
Voter turnout in the United States is generally lower than in Venezuela. However, Venezuela has never carried out a primary election before; so there is no historical precedent upon which to judge the result. In 2008, Venezuela’s electoral registry had 16.3 million people. This means that if Venezuelan turnout followed Florida, a good showing would be 2.2 million voters. Should the turnout follow the pattern of South Carolina, it would be 3.7 million votes.
Given the threats that President Chávez has been making against the opposition, and the voter intimidation of the more than five million people who depend directly on the government for their well-being, if the Venezuelan opposition sees a turnout of two million, it would be well within the norm. This is roughly the number that independent pollsters have been predicting.
Nevertheless, whatever the result, President Chávez will attempt to disparage it as insignificant. Mr. Chávez should remember that in the 2009 internal elections of his own party – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – just over 500,000 voters participated. All of a sudden, two million is looking pretty good.