The two parties that dominated Venezuelan politics between 1948 and 1998, Accion Democratica (AD) and the Christian Democrats (COPEI), are mere relics. Until the elections of December 1998, the president had always been a representative of one of the two so-called traditional parties—the Accion Democratica (AD), which is social democratic; and the Social Christian Party (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente—COPEI), which is Christian Democratic.
However, by 1998 the AD and COPEI had become largely discredited because of their association with corrupt and inept governments. Exploiting the popular desire for new leadership, Chávez ran for president in the December 1998 elections as the candidate of Patriotic Pole (Polo Patriótico—PP), an alliance of his own Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento Quinta República—MVR) and two other leftist parties, Homeland for All (Patria Para Todos—PPT) and Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo—MAS). He won a landslide victory, garnering more votes than any candidate in Venezuela’s history. Politically, he has relied principally on his charismatic, populist appeal and the tools and resources of government, not the MVR party. Consequently, the MVR party, while a solid electoral machine, was widely perceived to lack both the structure and infrastructure that characterize fully functioning parties.
As a result of the July 30, 2000, legislative elections, Chávez’s pro-government bloc held 108 of the 165 seats, but subsequent party splits reduced the pro-Chávez members to 86 seats. As of early 2005, the seating composition of the National Assembly by party was divided into two main coalitions: the 86-member Parliamentary Bloc for Change (Bloque Parlamentario del Cambio—BPC) and the 79-member Bloc for Parliamentary Autonomy (Bloque por la Autonomía Parlamentaria—BAP). The BPC included President Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento V República—MVR), with 68 seats, and five smaller parties. The BAP included the opposition Democratic Action (Acción Democrática—AD), with 24 seats; and the Social Christian Party (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente—COPEI), with 7 seats, as well as 10 smaller parties.
Opposition parties do not possess the cohesiveness, grassroots strength, or public support to constitute a real check on the Venezuelan president's ongoing efforts to "accelerate" his Bolivarian revolution. Polling from the prominent Datanalisis firm fom November 2008 indicates that just 11.7 percent of respondents self-identify as a member of an opposition party. Of those, 5.3 percent claim Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) membership, 2.8 percent Primero Justicia (PJ), 2.3 Accion Democratica (AD), and 0.8 percent Christian Democrats (COPEI). In contrast, 24 percent claim to be members of Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and 48.5 percent of respondents say they are independents, or "ni-ni."
The most noteworthy aspect of Venezuelan party politics prior to Chavez, was not the proliferation of small parties, but rather the fact that two parties, AD and COPEI, had been the major contenders for power for over three decades. The competition between these two democratic and pragmatically reformist parties gave the Venezuelan political system a great deal of stability; and although the other contenders contributed fresh ideas and at times brilliant leaders, AD and COPEI managed to occupy the broad center, where most Venezuelan voters felt most comfortable.
Center-left political party Accion Democratica (AD) is one of the two political parties that dominated Venezuelan politics prior to Chavez, election in 1998; however, by 2007 only a very small percentage of Venezuelan voters identified themselves as AD members. Nevertheless, AD still maintained a nation-wide presence, including in some Chavez strongholds. COPEI remained anchored to the discredited Fourth Republic during the tenure of former secretary general Cesar Perez Vivas. Perez Vivas exhibited an overconfidence and obliviousness to the fate of his party. Most other parties, NGOs, and unions enjoy greater credibility with the Venezuelan public than does COPEI. COPEI's share of the Venezuelan vote has dwindled to less than 4 percent in part because it retains the stigma of its pre-Chavez presidential administrations.
President Hugo Chavez reiterated 15 December 2006 that he would combine -- and replace -- his Fifth Republic Movement party (MVR) and numerous other pro-Chavez parties to form the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV), a new single socialist party early in 2007. Chavez made the announcement during a televised speech at a ceremony recognizing his national campaign team and local campaign leaders. Reflecting on his December 3 electoral victory, Chavez told his supporters that "I have seen some out there saying that their party secured so many votes. Don't fall for lies, those votes are for Chavez." In the wake of the dissolution of the MVR, a number of minor parties that supported Chavez during the December 3 election on their own party ticket announced their imminent dissolution and intention to join a United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Lina Ron, the firebrand President of the Popular Venezuelan Unity party (UPV), published a December 19 op-ed endorsing the creation of a single "revolutionary" party, noting "Who am I to put conditions on the second liberator of my country?" While reiterating their allegiance to Chavez, the leaders of Podemos, Patria Para Todos (PPT) and the Communist Party (PCV) have all registered their desire to negotiate the terms of their entry into a future PSUV before actually dissolving.
By mid-2007 Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) formation leaders claimed the party signed up 5.6 million members and retains the active participation of 1.2 million members (out of an electorate of over 16 million registered voters).
In 2007 sixteen political parties formally registered with the National Electoral Council (CNE) to advocate for approval of Chavez's proposed sweeping constitutional changes to 69 articles of the 350-article 1999 Constitution. The groups range from Socialist Battalions for The Constitutional Reform to the Communist Party to Patria Para Todos. Nineteen political parties formally registered with the CNE to oppose Chavez' proposed constitutional reforms. They include former consensus opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales' Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) party, Primero Justicia (PJ), Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), La Causa R, the two parties that dominated Venezuelan politics before Chavez was elected in 1999 -- Accion Democratica (AD) and the Christian Democrats (COPEI), and the small pro-Chavez party Podemos.
Leaders of nine opposition parties, including Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), Primero Justicia (PJ), the Christian Democrats (COPEI) and Accion Democratica (AD), signed an agreement 23 January 2008 to support consensus opposition candidates in the late 2008 gubernatorial and mayoral elections. Small parties, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Alianza Bravo Pueblo (ABP), The Radical Cause (Causa R), Project Venezuela (PV), and Popular Vanguard (VP) also signed on. The party leaders pledged to select the best qualified opposition candidates as well as the most viable nominees, as measured by opinion polls. Podemos, the pro-socialism party ostracized by President Chavez in the wake of the party's opposition to his proposed constitutional reforms, did not sign the opposition agreement. Podemos Secretary General Ismael Garcia was publicly positioning his party as a Chavista-lite, alternative party and will not openly align with the opposition.
In the 23 November 2008 state and local elections the much-discredited political parties that dominated Venezuela prior to Chavez demonstrated that they retained some regional strength, despite losing some ground in terms of mayorships. COPEI elected a governor (Tachira) and 11 mayors. Accion Democratica (AD) failed to win any governorships, but elected more mayorships than any other opposition party (19). Moreover, more Venezuelans voted the AD ticket than any other opposition party outside of Zulia. Nationwide, Manuel Rosales' Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) party won more votes than any opposition party (1.1 million - 561,000 without Zulia) nation-wide, more than AD (758,000), Primero Justicia (PJ) (485,000) and COPEI (421,000). UNT retains the governorship of Zulia and UNT candidates won seven mayorships, including Maracaibo. PJ succeeded in electing its first governor (Miranda) and won four mayorships.
Antonio Ledezma, of the opposition Alianza Bravo Pueblo party (ABP), scored the most surprising electoral upset in winning the Caracas mayorship. Ledezma has been one of Chavez's most strident critics and has been the driving force behind numerous, but often poorly attended, street demonstrations against government policies. The Caracas mayorship provides him with an important new platform from which to project himself. PJ Secretary General Carlos Ocariz demonstrated that the opposition can attract voters from poor neighborhoods, winning the Sucre Borough mayorship in Caracas, home of the emblematic Petare hillside slums.
Luis Tascon, who formed his own New Revolutionary Path party after being expelled from the PSUV, received only 3300 voters of 920,000 votes cast in the Libertador Borough mayoral race. The small, pro-Chavez Patria Para Todos candidates had hoped to win gubernatorial races in Guarico and Portuguesa, but lost both by wide margins. PPT candidates won only four mayorships. The formerly pro-Chavez Podemos party won only two mayorships and now has no governorships (after winning two governorships four years earlier).
President Chavez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) party were the big winners of the 15 February 2009 referendum in which almost 55% of Venezuelans voted to remove term limits for all elected officials. Chavez now can run for a third six-year term and currently faces no real viable opponent. The PSUV mobilized over a million more voters to the polls than the "No" campaign, despite the fact that the opposition mobilized their largest voter turnout in a decade. Perhaps the biggest losers were opposition political parties, who arrived late to the game with limited resources and no discernible strategy. In addition, Chavez's confirmation that he will run again in 2012 effectively undermined any potential succession by any other senior PSUV leader, such as Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello.
Ten years after Chavez was first elected, the democratic opposition was still talking about the need to articulate a politically attractive, democratic alternative. Opposition parties were still mostly personalist vehicles with no discernible party platforms. Moreover, almost all opposition parties were relatively strong in specific regions and lack a genuine nationwide presence. With few exceptions, most opposition leaders focused on criticizing Venezuela's Teflon president rather than engage in much-need grassroots organizing among Venezuela's poor. Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) enjoyed a virtual monopoly in Venezuela's countryside. Moreover, opposition parties continued to squabble among themselves, and there wasno single opposition leader who enjoys anything approaching the popularity of Chavez.
Opposition parties failed to unite in a few key gubernatorial and numerous mayoral races in November 2008, allowing Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to win races the PSUV otherwise would have lost. By 2009 opposition parties had not yet agreed on a methodology to pick unified candidates for the 2010 parliamentary elections (they foolishly boycotted the 2005 elections). At the same time, the central government was actively hampering opposition-led states and municipalities to prevent elected opposition leaders from building democratic alternatives to Chavismo. The student movement injected new life into the opposition, but student politics are inherently transitory. Numerous student leaders have formally entered politics and visible student activism has declined. Pro-Chavez dissidents, for their part, had not made much of a dent at the polls.
In the absence of hope for change, many Venezuelans, including business and professional elites, have found ways to accommodate themselves to the Bolivarian revolution, or at a minimum, to avoid political risks. Because the government regulates and dominates the domestic economy so much, private sector leaders argue they have little choice but to find ways to "get along" in order to survive and prosper. Opposition political parties report that contributions from the private sector have virtually dried up. Moreover, large numbers of well educated and skilled Venezuelans have chosen flight over fight.
Venezuelan political parties evolved from the student groups formed at the Central University of Venezuela in the capital during the long years of the Juan Vicente Gómez dictatorship. The most prominent of these groups was the FEV. Not surprisingly, the aging dictator swiftly dispatched into exile some of the young leaders of these protests. Abroad, they formed links with activists of similarly democratic inclinations. Other leaders who avoided exile established the bases of clandestine partisan organizations, the most important of which was the Republican National Union (Unión Nacional Republicana--UNR). Shortly after Gómez's death in 1935, these exiled leaders returned, and a spate of new political groups emerged.
Many of the former student leaders helped launch the Venezuelan Organization (Organización Venezolana--Orve); the more radical elements coalesced around the Progressive Republican Party (Partido Republicano Progresista--PRP), a Marxist group. The UNR mostly attracted young businessmen, while the Democratic National Bloc (Bloque Democrático Nacional--BDN) was primarily a regional organization centered in Maracaibo. The Orve, the PRP, and the BDN decided to join forces and, with the remnants of the old FEV, formed the National Democratic Party (Partido Democrático Nacional--PDN). Novelist Rómulo Gallegos ran under the PDN banner in the 1941 presidential election against government candidate Isaías Medina Angarita. Although Medina's victory was a foregone conclusion, as president he did open up the system somewhat, enabling the opposition, under the banner of AD, to make common cause with a reformist faction of the military to launch a crucial experiment in democracy between 1945 and 1948.
The trienio was a time of great political ferment during which two former leaders of the Generation of 1928 came to the fore. Jóvito Villalba called his political group the Democratic Republican Union (Unión Republicana Democrática--URD) and Rafael Caldera founded COPEI. AD also began organizing labor and peasant leagues during this period. Although Betancourt was the undisputed AD leader, he and others felt compelled to put forward Gallegos as their presidential candidate in the late 1947 elections.
Gallegos won overwhelmingly, but his political inexperience contributed to his overthrow less than a year later. During the reign of Pérez Jiménez (president, 1948-58), political activities were banned, political groups once again had to go underground, and political leaders such as Betancourt once more went into exile. The ten-year hiatus, however, allowed the Generation of 1928 to mature and to deepen its understanding of Venezuelan political and economic problems and realities. After 1958 many of the old organizations revived and reestablished themselves. AD and COPEI went on to hold the presidency a number of times, while Villalba made several runs for the office.
Several other political parties and organizations also were active in 1990. National Opinion, formed in 1958, won three seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1983 and placed fifth in the presidential elections. New Democratic Generation, a small conservative group formed in 1979, managed to elect one senator and six deputies in 1988. In January 1989, it merged with two smaller groups, Formula One and the Authentic Renovating Organization, under the name of the Venezuelan Emergent Right. The Venezuelan Communist Party (Partido Comunista de Venezuela-- PCV), probably the oldest political party in the country, had functioned under the same name since 1931. Accused of involvement in subversive movements that threatened the new democracy, the PCV was banned for several years beginning in 1962. MAS originated as a radical left-wing faction that split off from the PCV in 1971. In the 1970s, MAS became the Venezuelan counterpart of "Eurocommunist" parties. In the 1988 presidential election, the MAS's nominee, Teodoro Petkoff, came in third, after the AD and the COPEI candidates. Still smaller organizations, most of them former factions of the major political parties, included New Alternative, the United Vanguard, the Revolutionary Action Group, the Radical Cause, the People's Electoral Movement (Movimiento Electoral del Pueblo--MEP), the Independent Moral Movement, the People's Advance, the Socialist League, and the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution.
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