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VENEZUELA: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Kathryn B. Sanderson*

As stated in the original essay for the International Comparative Parties Project on party politics in Venezuela, "political party activity, and certainly democratic government, came later to Venezuela than it did to most other major South American countries" (Janda, 1980: 582). In fact, democracy came extremely late to this country, arriving in its true form only in the late 1960s. For more than the first century of its existence as an independent nation, Venezuela was ruled by a procession of dictatorships, with warlord and caudillo politics dominating the political scene. After some democratic behavior in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which laid the foundations for what would later become the major political parties of the nation, a brief respite of representative government was experienced; the trienio of 1945-48. The military reclaimed power from 1948-58, towards the end of which a group of party members and cooperative government officials came together to form the Patriotic Junta and the Punto Fijo, plans for reinstating democracy. Since 1959, Venezuela has enjoyed peaceful transfers of power, although the first decade of modern democracy consisted mainly of attempts to suppress revolutionary violence. The 1970s brought an era of corruption, mismanagement, and general economic difficulty to the country, but the regime seems to have survived into the 21st century. A strong two-party system emerged to dominate the political scene for a considerable span of time, with Democratic Action and The Social Christian Party sharing power throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and retaining significant strength into the 1990s, which has taken on a more pluralist political appearance. The history of democracy in this nation, formally known as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela after its liberator, Simón Bolivar, may be divided into three periods: the trienio of 1945-48, the struggles of 1948-58, and consolidation of democracy from 1958 to the present (Levine 1987).

Traditional theories of democracy and development would not predict Venezuela to become a modern, pluralist democracy. However, it seems to have defied these theories, because since the advent of representative government in the 1950s and 1960s, Venezuela has evolved into a model of democracy for its South American neighbors. Difficulties with foreign domination, military rule, and socioeconomic inequality have not prevented the institutionalization of free, competitive, dynamic elections in recent decades. These elections were made possible partly by the strong leadership, ideology, and organization of the emerging political organizations, whose flexibility and prerogative has been invaluable for the maintenance of true electoral contests. Elections were also encouraged by the political elites of the late 1950s, who actually made free elections a goal for their government, and by the genuine commitment of the people to the ideals of democracy. The interaction of mass politics, a strong social base, a nd free elections has been a surprisingly successful recipe for Venezuelan government, proving to the development theorists that some autonomous factors of modernization may be able to override the structural requirements of democratic development. "Since the trienio the Venezuelan political system has successfully met three kinds of challenges: opposition from rightist military elements, the threat of leftist insurrection, and the danger of atomization and system fragmentation" (Levine, 1987: 271).

Scholars have asserted that there are no politically significant socioeconomic, ethnic, or linguistic divisions in Venezuelan society. According to Levine, although there is a tremendous amount of empirical evidence of class and cultural differences in the country, these have not become salient because of the way that the general orientation of politics has evolved. Going through organizations and institutions, political developments have remained less disruptive than similar developments in neighboring countries have been. Increasing mobility and urbanization of the population, instead of causing agitation, has resulted in positive democratic attitudes in common citizens as well as in political elites. Levine's "anomaly of peripheral participation," which describes the surprising enthusiasm of the poorest strata of society for democratic behavior, is a great example of this phenomenon. The development of the major political parties, such as AD, COPEI, and the URD with their cross-cutting, personalist ic constituencies and their impressive acceptance of friendly rivalry, is a reflection of the fact that there is an absence of politically salient and relevant natural division in Venezuela.

The governmental structure and electoral system in Venezuela are reflections of its status as a relatively established democratic country. It has a division of power among three governmental branches. The executive power in concentrated in the president, who is directly elected by a simple majority every five years and enjoys considerable freedom. The legislative branch is divided into the bicameral organs of the General Assembly, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate is composed of about forty-two members, adjusted slightly for every election to allow for accurate proportional representation. Each state and Federal District is allowed two senators and additional ones may be added to assure representation for minority parties. Former national presidents become life members of the Senate. The Chamber of Deputies uses a system of proportional representation based on the 20 states, one Federal District, and two Federal Territories of the country. Each state and Federal District must have at least two deputies, with more added on the basis of population (one extra seat for every 63,000 voters) (Gorvin 1989). Venezuela possesses an independent judiciary, presided over by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. It is assumed that this situation has not been changed by the 1999 Constitution.

Since the trienio, the country has used the same system of elections for the legislative branch of government. "National elections require the voter to make two choices: picking a party's candidate for president by selecting or marking a large card that displays the party's symbol and repeating the operation with a small card that designates a party slate for all legislative seats. Votes for president typically involve coalitions of several groups around a major party's candidate. Legislative (small-card) votes thus give a truer reflection of support for the different parties" (Levine, 1987: 253). The system serves to reinforce the power and influence of parties. It is assumed that this situation has not been changed by the 1999 Constitution.

"Post-1984 political discontent and reform‚" is a popular heading for essays on Venezuelan party politics. Entrenched and developed economic and political difficulties in the country began to gain prominence in recent decades, as the country has come to realize its precarious position in relation to both international and internal developments. The military threat of the 1960s and the economic weakness of the 1970s both returned to haunt the government officials of the 1980s. An admission of crisis by the government, with its announcement of COPRE --the Presidential Commission for the Reform of the State --in the middle of the decade, reflected the depth of the problems faced by the nation. Economic troubles with foreign debt, stagnation, drugs, and corrupt family influences have been a main focus of concern, especially in relation to the prevalence of crises on the continent in the 1980s and 1990s. The continuing existence of violence, provoked by the still autonomous military, the national guard, and by hostile guerilla groups has precluded the true realization of stability in the political arena. Also, the desire for the decentralization and de-ossification of politics has prompted efforts at reform and change in the political sphere, including the "Perez-stroika‚" program of privatization in the late-1980s.

The 1990s blessed Venezuela with moderate relief in economic relations and with escape from political dangers. After the acceptance of debt reduction and adjustment agreements by foreign creditors, the pressure for exorbitant payments on international interest and capital was reduced and Venezuela was able to escape economic crisis. The added pressure to deal with changes in the international political environment, namely the fall of communism and subsequent relations with the U.S., would have surely brought catastrophe in a nation with less developed institutions. The major political parties were forced to deal with increased modernization and industrialization, which caused them to further shift their foci from rural to urban affairs. The two-party system has been in decline in Venezuela over the past decade, as the AD and COPEI have begun to lose power to other organizations such as the leftist MAS (Movement to Socialism), the Causa Radical (LCR) and the progressive Convergencia. "Elections in Venezuela will most likely resemble an annual shareholders meeting of a large corporation. The citizen-owners of this corporation will have the right of voice and will vote in the selection of which team of competitive "top managers‚ will be promoted" (Ameringer, 1992: 611). The country seems to have narrowly escaped potential economic and political crises of the 1980s and 1990s, but the ingredients for future problems have not yet been removed in the 21st century.

It is evident that Venezuela is still experiencing political difficulties related to residual problems in its society in the year 2000. A new constitution put in place in 1999 increased state power and allowed for a great deal of nepotism in a new, provisional government set up by President Hugo Chavez. Chavez, a former army officer and a participant in the attempted coup in 1992, is known to be a populist and a military collaborator. He is famous for his tough leadership policies in the slums of Caracas; an area that welcomes a strong hand in government as opposed to the slow-moving machinery of true democratic power. Chavez promotes what he has termed a "peaceful revolution" through established democratic channels. The elections scheduled for May 2000, which would have filled every office from local councils to the President, were recently postponed due to technical difficulties in the vote-counting system. Despite the impressive amount of democratic behavior in Venezuela in the 1980s and the 1990s, it is obvious that the country still has a ways to go before it can consider itself a truly stable and consolidated democratic nation.

Original parties from 1950-62, continuing to 2000:

392 Social Christian COPEI Party or Partido Social Cristiano--COPEI. The clearest trend in Venezuelan politics has been the steady rise in power of the Social Christian Party over the decades of democratic government. Originally important only as an opposition party for AD, COPEI has gained significance in its own right and has recently eclipsed the power of the former dominant party of Venezuela. A mirror socioeconomic image of AD, COPEI has similarly come to rely on personalism as opposed to ideology for its attraction of the electorate. However, "COPEI's leaders are more involved in theoretical disputes involving various interpretations of Catholic social doctrines than are the pragmatic leaders of the Democratic Action (AD)" (Ameringer, 1992: 620). Also like AD, COPEI has been troubled with recent internal divisions among members of the party, as a new generation attempts to wrest leadership away from the old party bosses. In the two most recent elections, COPEI has attempted to move to the left of AD by allying with groups such as MAS and MEP. In 1993, COPEI won 26 percent of the legislative seats, and in 1996, it won 13 percent (Ameringer 1992, Levine 1987).

393 Democratic Action Party or Acción Democratica--AD. As the first party to be organized on a national scale, the lifetime of AD can be understood as an indicator of the general situation of politics and electoral competition in the country. The foundations of AD can be found in the remnants of a student uprising in 1928; the party began to organize in the next couple of decades and came to power in the early 1940s. Its official founding date is 1941. The history of this major party may be broadly outlined as initial dominance, a long period of shared power mainly with COPEI but also with the URD, and a recent loss of control but retention of influence. The Party initially possessed a consolidated base, but lost it to changes in the general situation of society. "Appearing on the scene at the right moment, AD was able to put together a heterogeneous but strongly integrated base" (Levine, 1987 253). Reliance on personalist policies and grassroots power bases has characterized the basis of appeal of AD from the late 1950s all the way up to the presen t. Since its total and complete control of Venezuela as the ruling party in the trienio, AD has experienced division among its ranks resulting in the breaking off of factions and the separation of sources of electoral support. Accusations of corruption and mismanagement during the oil boom of the 1970s, specifically towards the regime of President Perez, cost the party significant support from the populace, and attempts in the late 1980s and 1990s to reverse inefficient policies did not restore the party to its former position of primacy. In the two most recent legislative elections, in 1993 and 1998, AD won about one fourth of the seats; a far cry from its absolute majorities of the past (Ameringer 1992, Levine 1987).

New parties Since 1962, continuing to 2000:

394 National Opening and Participation or Apertura y Participación Nacional --Apertura. Founded in 1997, Apertura won one percent of the seats in congress in the 1998 elections, but little is known about their orientation, goals, and future prospects.

396 Convergence / Convergencia. Founded in 1993, Convergencia won thirteen percent of the seats in congress in the 1993 elections and nine percent in the 1998 elections, but little is known about their orientation, goals, and future prospects.

399 Radical Cause or Liga Causa R--LCR. A small group of radicals created the Radical Cause in 1971. Centered in a new, government-planned industrial city, LCR sought the support of union workers, and won that of the steel workers by the end of the decade. Although, and perhaps because AD reacted severely to that development, LCR retained the union support of the steel workers and used it as a base to create grassroots organizations and working-class support. LCR's electoral support has been impressive in the 1990s; they won twenty percent of the seats in congress in 1993 (Ameringer 1992).

3910 Movement to Socialism or Movimiento a Socialismo--MAS. In the late 1960s, concurrent with controversial occurrences in the Communist world, two guerilla leaders left the Venezuelan Communist Party to form the Movement to Socialism, which has been one of the more successful leftist organizations. "In the 1970-1990 generation, the MAS has prospered while other militant groups have faded" (Ameringer, 1992: 616). The MAS has been aided by the fact that many foreign socialist movements have acknowledged it as an affiliate as well as by the fact that university intellectuals have been associated with the movement. Although internal rivalry over leadership as well as controversy over the term "socialism" has taken support away from the party in recent decades, the MAS has retained a significant presence in the Chamber of Deputies. Since 1973, MAS has won at least 5 percent of the seats and as much as 12 percent (Ameringer 1992).

3911 Popular Electoral Movement or Movimiento Electoral del Pueblo--MEP. Founded in 1967, the MEP resulted from a serious internal division of AD regarding a presidential nomination. It won a respectable amount of seats in congress during the 1970s and early 1980s, due to support from former AD members and some ideological appeal. A few coalitions were attempted in the late 1980s, including one with the PCV entitled the Moral Movement. However, the vote for the MEP was been so low in the 1988 elections that the party would have to revalidate its formal party registration in order to continue into the 1990s. It is too soon to write the party off as terminated, but its chances for survival certainly don't look good for the 21st century (Ameringer 1992). 

3913 Movement for the Fifth Republic / Movimiento V República--MVR. Founded in 1998, MVR won an impressive twenty-three percent of the seats in congress in the 1998 elections, but little is known about their orientation, goals, and future prospects.

3918 Country for All--Patria Para Todos--PPT. A recently founded party, PPT won two percent of the seats in congress in the 1998 elections, but little is known about their orientation, goals, and future prospects.

3919 Project Venezuela / Proyecto Venezolano--PRVZL A recently founded party, PRVZL won twelve percent of the seats in congress in the 1998 elections, but little is known about their orientation, goals, and future prospects.

Three other parties mentioned as being present in Venezuela in recent sources on party politics are New Hope Integration and Renovation or Integración y Renovación Nueva Esperanza (IRENE), The Venezuelan Devolutionary Party or Partido Devolucionario Venezolano (PDV), and the Venezuelan Labor Party or Partido Laboral Venezolano (PLV). All three seem to be in the organizational stages of existence and have yet to win a seat in congress.

Original parties from 1950-62, Terminated

391 Democratic Republican Union / Unión Republicana Democrática--URD. Founded in 1958, the URD was an effective third party for a couple of decades in Venezuela. Initially organized around a noncommunist, anticlerical doctrine to counteract tendencies within the two major parties, the good organization of the party achieved by its strong leaders began to fail in the 1980s. "ˇEarly in its history the party fell under the domination of Jóvito Villalba, a former student leader and a brilliant orator. Throughout his lengthy career Villalba brooked no rivals, and his total control of URD effectively precluded any organizational consolidation. Promising cadres were repeatedly driven out, and the URD has declined steadily" (Levine, 1987: 256). The party attempted to salvage its influence through alliances with the AD early on, and later with leftist organizations in a failed effort to create a New Force coalition. The last time that the URD won a percentage of congressional seats was in 1988; the 1990s seem to indicate that the URD is a terminated party (Ameringer 1992, Levine 1987).

New Parties Since 1962, Terminated before 2000:

395 Nationalist Civic Crusade or Cruzada Cívica Nacionalista --CCN. The CCN was organized in 1965 by followers of a former dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez. The party attempted to restore the former dictator to political power, and actually won him a seat in the Senate in 1968. However, this decision was disqualified by the courts on technical grounds, and was followed by a government effort to amend the constitution against persons convicted of treason. CCN has never won any congressional seats since 1968 (Ameringer1992).

397 National Democratic Front or Frente Nacional Democratico--FND. Organized after the 1963 elections, the FND was another party organized to support a particular presidential candidate (Arturo Ulsar Pietri); but it did have some sort of an ideological basis. The FND was concerned with the business community's fear that its representation in politics was inadequate and that it needed to find its own voice. It attempted to form several coalitions during the 1960s and early 1970s in order to promote conservative policies, but was unsuccessful and may be considered to be terminated since the 1973 election (Ameringer 1992).

398 Popular Democratic Force or Fuerza Democrática Popular--FDP. The FDP was created in 1962 as a faction of a faction of AD. Members of the MIR who did not believe in armed struggle and revolution created this new party. In 1963 and 1969 the FDP backed prominent presidential candidates, but thereafter the party seemed to be absorbed into the ranks of COPEI, the opposition party of its ancestor, AD (Ameringer 1992).

3912 Movement of the Revolutionary Left or Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario--MIR. "The MIR was created in 1960 when the radical youth of the Democratic Action broke with the old-guard leadership in order to bring about a violent revolutionary changeˇThe MIR continued its guerilla war until 1969. In 1973, as a legal party, it elected only one member to congress; nonetheless, the MIR emerged as a force in the student movement of several universities in the late 1970s" (Ameringer, 1992: 615). This member of the leftist movement has fallen victim to the inability and unwillingness common to other organizations of its kind, and has not won more than one percent of congressional seats since 1978. "The young men who wanted to emulate the experience of Cuba's Fidel Castro in the early 1960s appear to be irrelevant in the Venezuela of the 1990s" (Ameringer, 1992: 615).

3914 New Democratic Generation or Nueva Generación Democratica--NGD. "In June 1981, a group of antiparty, antipopulist young businessmen and executives created the NGD" [it] opposed the "folkloric" populism of the political establishment and its uniquely inept blend of socialism and capitalism" (Ameringer, 1992: 618). Like so many other attempts at creating political organizations in Latin American nations, this one fell to the level of supporting individual candidates in elections without the necessary corresponding effort to create an effective party apparatus. The NGD's only recent success has been in lending its support to AD candidates; an apparently hypocritical action considering its former raison d'etre (Ameringer 1992).

3915 National Opinion or Opinión Nacional--OPINA. Although OPINA does not seem to have won a significant amount of congressional seats during the entire survey of the ICPP project, it has been mentioned in a considerable amount of the party literature. OPINA was founded as a conservative party in 1962, but was taken over and probably used to further the personal goals of a few successive leaders. OPINA has not won any seats in decades and probably is not posed to win any in the future (Ameringer 1992).

3916 Authentic Renovating Organization /Organización Renovadora Autentica--ORA. The ORA won one percent of the seats in congress in the 1988 legislative elections, but they are not mentioned in any of the sources used for Venezuelan political parties and they have not reappeared on the political scene since that single election.

3917 Communist Party of Venezuela--PCV. The PCV, Venezuela's oldest political party, was founded in 1931. Although this party is actually older than AD, it lost to AD in the organizational struggles of the 1940s and has remained weak ever since. It sacrificed political legitimacy in the late 1960s by joining in a Castro-inspired guerilla war. In the 1970s and 1980s, the PCV seemed to exist only to block the MAS, and by 1988 nearly all of its distinguished members had abandoned the party. The PCV has not won any congressional seats in recent electoral history (Ameringer 1992).


Ameringer, Charles D. (1992), ed. Political Parties of the Americas: 1980s to 1990s; Canada, Latin America, and the West Indies. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Gorvin, Ian, ed. Elections Since 1945: A Worldwide Reference Compendium. Chicago: Longman, 1989.

Gutkin, Steven. "Fujimori and Chavez test the Boundaries of Democracy in Latin America." The Associated Press, May 27, 2000.

Hernandez, Sandra. "Venezuela's Election Process: Problems and Mismanagement." The Associated Press, May 30, 2000.

Janda, Kenneth. Political Parties: A Cross-National Survey. New York: Free Press, 1980.

Levine, Daniel H. "Venezuela." In Competitive Elections in Developing Countries, ed. by Myron Weiner and Ergun Ozbudum. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1987. Pp. 248-276.

Wilson, Scott. "Vote Delay Highlights Change in Venezuela; Court Decision Tests Democracy Under Chavez." The Washington Post, May 28, 2000.

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000