New Political Parties and Movements in Venezuela in the 1990s: A Threat or a Potential Solution to the Legitimacy Crisis?
Carla P. Vale
”La democracia venezolana está tejida por improntas irracionales, por la locura. La razón cuenta poco en un país que, según nos enseña la historia, sufre los extraños trances de una prolongada e indefinible enfermedad. ¿Cuál es la dolencia? La cultura política del venezolano común es pobrísima, por no decir inexistente. Lo que en casi todos los países de América Latina es una verdad de perogrullo, aquí, en este desierto de pobreza intelectual, es un descubrimiento. Somos el país con la cultura política más deleznable del continente y uno de los países más tristes del mundo. Partamos de esta base, no nos engañemos, comencemos la historia a partir de esta terrible constatación: una nación que primero se abalanzó sobre la candidatura de una reina de belleza, respaldándola con el sesenta por ciento de la intención de votos y luego se abraza con un líder populista, mesiánico, atrasado, de una asombrosa pobreza intelectual, es un país condenado al fracaso. Hacia allá vamos, cantandito, mientras nuestros "demócratas" son incapaces de ponerse de acuerdo en una candidatura que nos salve de la desgracia, del odio, la violencia, la desintegración y el retroceso” (my Ital.).1
In 1991, a well-known Venezuelan scholar vehemently claimed that the crisis in which the country was submerged was not the result of the failure of the political model or the political parties in the country; rather, it was the way in which wealth and the state had been understood by the ruling elites what had prompted the crisis. In his own words, the assessment was as follows:
No ha fracasado ésta o aquella fórmula, ésta o aquella doctrina y modelo político. Es una cultura económica y política, una manera de entender la riqueza y el Estado (…) la que ha fracasado. Cultura económica y política, deformadas en las élites y por ello mismo también en el pueblo. No ha fracasado en Venezuela éste o aquel partido; mucho menos el sistema democrático, sino una forma concreta de hacer política partidista-clientelista e improductiva que se apropia del Estado petrolero y lo convierte en rentista y subsidiador, y en muletas de la empresa privada.2
But at the time of writing, this scholar could have not known that in the year following the publication of his statement, Venezuela would be shaken by two military coups that would cast very serious doubts on the legitimacy of the political system. In light of this situation, this paper attempts to do two things. First, it argues that although Venezuela’s political system is undergoing a legitimacy crisis, such crisis has more to do with the failure of the major political parties, AD and COPEI, to effectively fulfill the functions of interest aggregation and channeling of political participation, as well as to recognize and interpret the changes of the Venezuelan polity, than to the loss of legitimacy of democracy in itself.
Second, it analyzes the origin, structure and ideological characteristics of some of the new political parties that have emerged in this decade to conclude that they represent, to an extent, the reaction of new generations to what they perceive to be a political establishment in decline and unable to deliver solutions to the country’s problems. Specifically, I will focus on the study of three new political organizations: Movimiento V República (Hugo Chávez’s political party), Proyecto Venezuela (Henrique Salas Romer’s party), and Renovación (Claudio Fermín’s party)3.
In the end, I will state what chances of success or failure these new movements have as efficacious and efficient interest aggregators and as sources of policy alternatives. This will be partially based on the analysis of the results of the regional and congressional elections that took place on November 8, 1998 and which, at the time of writing, appear to be an adequate gauge to make some predictions with regard to the future. Finally, I conclude that unless traditional Venezuelan political parties experience a profound reform able to generate real transparency and internal democracy of the parties involved, and unless the new political movements become institutionalized, our political system might experience a breakdown.
Conceptual Framework, Background and Assumptions
Nineteen ninety eight appears to be the end of a critical juncture (1989-1998) and the beginning of a new juncture in the democratic history of Venezuela. Never before in the democratic period (1958-1998), had Venezuela experienced the type of political, economic, social and leadership crisis that it is currently undergoing. Among these, it is the institutional and political crisis that demands the most urgent corrective measures as, I argue, it is the factor that has contributed the most to the deterioration of the system’s legitimacy.
This paper acknowledges three factors or assumptions. The first one is that political parties and a competitive party system is a precondition for the maintenance and consolidation of a democratic system. The second factor is that Venezuela’s democracy is on a dangerous path and that breakdown is indeed a possibility that cannot be overlooked, much less ignored. This is so, in part, because the political regime presents characteristics typical of a divided and even perhaps a coercive regime, as we observe mixed support for the current government and political leadership, and low compliance of the rule of law by citizens, as evidenced, for instance, by the staggering increase of the crime rate since 1989.
This increase in the crime rate and the subsequent deterioration of public safety may have its genesis in the rapid deterioration of the economy, which has brought about a sharp decrease in the population’s living standards (as demonstrated by the increase in the poverty rate which has been estimated to be in the order of 70 to 80 per cent4), and it definitely poses long-term implications on the behavior of society. Violence and the breach of law have come to be regarded as the ultimate, and, sometimes, the only means of defense by those who are harassed, or of survival by the most vulnerable sectors of the population vis-à-vis the country’s precarious economic situation. There is no doubt that the erosion of law compliance is partially a result of the lack of credibility and poor performance of the police force and alike. In a poll published recently in the Wall Street Journal, out of a sample of 1,000 Venezuelans, only 17 per cent said they had either “a great deal” or “some confidence” in the police.
This low compliance and lack of confidence are further aggravated by the widespread and ever-growing presence of corruption which permeates almost all levels of society. Corruption has impaired the credibility of governing bodies and political institutions which now less than ever count on the support of Venezuelan citizens5. In the same poll published by the Wall Street Journal, only 13 per cent of Venezuelans said they had “a great deal” or “some confidence” in Congress, compared to 71 per cent who said they had confidence in the Church, and 58 per cent who said they had confidence in the armed forces. When asked how democratic they thought the country was, 59 per cent responded “little or none.” Another survey conducted between September 10 and 12, 1998 revealed that 52 per cent of the population think they are worse off today than in the past, compared to only 10 per cent who said they were better off today. 6
The third factor or assumption is that the practice of modern, representative democracy entails and presupposes the existence of an adequate institutional framework capable of aggregating interests, channeling, adopting, and implementing the decisions reflected by the democratic process and actors. To these functions, it is necessary to add the ability of institutions to efficaciously and efficiently carry out those processes while, simultaneously, being able to follow up and measure the success or failure of policies. This will in turn contribute to the ongoing process of check and balances to which any democratic-republican system ought to be subject if it is to claim a real democratic status.
In this context, Venezuela represents the failure and the extinction (agotamiento) of the institutional political framework to carry out such a process either efficaciously or efficiently. Such a failure, in my opinion, is rooted in the fact that Venezuela’s party system went from being a relatively consensual party system, based on the agreement of the three main parties—AD, COPEI and URD---that emerged out of the dictatorial period (1948-1958), known as the Pacto de Punto Fijo, to respect electoral outcomes and to work together for the consolidation of democracy, to become what I argue is currently a conflictual party system.
According to Almond, Powell and Mundt, a party system is conflictual “if the legislature is dominated by parties that are very far apart on issues or are highly distrustful and antagonistic toward each other and the political system”7. Currently, there are elements in the way in which Venezuelans political party system functions as well as in the structure of Congress and the distribution of power among parties, that support this observation. The outcome of the recent regional elections, in which a coalition of minor parties of the center-left and left, the Polo Patriático, obtained an unprecedented number of governorships and congressional seats that transformed it into the second political force of the country constitutes an example of the way in which the current distribution of political power is expected to cause a major bottleneck for whoever is elected president on December 6.
The following analysis of the elections, made by Donald Ramírez, COPEI’s General Secretary, puts in perspective the nature of this potential conflict of interest among parties8:
El horizonte de una Venezuela escindida entre chavistas y anti-chavistas resulta poco alentador. Es una realidad que nos presenta como posible e inmediata una fase de conflicto profundo en el cual no está descartada la violencia. El chavismo es, nos guste o no, un porcentaje grande de la nación desgarrada, así la mitad del país. Es un conjunto heterólito tendiente al caos, con no pocos conflictos internos que permiten no considerarlo una fuerza compacta y unitaria cara al futuro. El antichavismo es la otra mitad del país.
Tampoco es una realidad homogénea. Su único denominador común es, justamente, el antichavismo. Ni en el chavismo ni en el antichavismo existe realmente un proyecto nacional compartido. Son más fuertes los odios que los amores, más robustas las negaciones que las afirmaciones. más patente la dispersión que la concentración. A un liderazgo sin tradición ni cultura de alianzas habría que recordarle aquello del mal menor y que querer no es poder.
La asistencia fue mayor que las últimas votaciones anteriores, pero no fue masiva. Los ciudadanos votantes representan, con 4.204.064 votos, el 54,73% de los menos 8 millones de votantes inscritos para votar. La abstención alcanzó al 45,27% (3.477.465), porcentaje sensiblemente más alto que el estimado como normal a nivel mundial (30%). De los votos emitidos, 3.517.800 fueron válidos (83,68%); y 686.140 nulos (16,32%).
La posibilidad de violencia no fue, en realidad vencida, sino postergada (…)
El 8N la realidad política venezolana quedó configurada en tres claros bloques participativos y uno abstencionista. Cada uno con aproximadamente el 25% del electorado. Los tres bloques participativos son: uno socialdemócrata (AD), uno de protesta radical (MVR-PPT-MAS) y uno socialcristiano (Proyecto Venezuela-COPEI).
This analysis makes clear that the Venezuelan electorate has undergone a profound change. Previous to 1993, Venezuelans characterized themselves for being not only politically participatory but also politically active.9 Although the abstention rate was lower on November 8 than it was in 1995, it was still very significant. Two conclusions can be drawn from the outcome of these elections. First, that there has been a polarization of the electorate as people voted against the traditional parties, AD and COPEI, and for Chávez’s coalition. In this “vengeance,” COPEI was the biggest looser and Chavez’s coalition was the winner. Second, that Venezuelans’ disgust with the party system continues to grow as abstention becomes another means of protest. What this does not say is that Venezuelans have lost their faith in democracy as such. As stated by Andrés Stambouli, what Venezuelans want is change10, so it is no coincidence that the two independent candidates who have run on that platform, although with very different ways of conveying that message, are the ones who fair best in the polls, i.e., Hugo Chávez and Henrique Salas Romer.
Although it could be argued that ideological differences among political parties are not defined enough in Venezuela11 as to provide a polarized basis of differentiation between them, thus placing them “very far apart on issues,” it is true that ideology has adopted a new and easy-to-fragment dimension in recent years which, in my opinion, contributes to make politics much more conflictive than in previous years, when the existence of bipartisanship characterized the country’s party system. This is not to say, however, that the bipartisan era of Venezuelan politics (i.e. 1973 -1988) brought the solution to Venezuela’s problems, but it did contribute to achieve major political stability in the country.12
One such aspect of this shift in the ideological element is what appears to be a revival of disloyal groups in the country (“grupos ultrosos”), most of which claim to have revolutionary and Marxist ends. In fact, Rafael Rivas-Vásquez13 has put forward the thesis that these groups are now closer than they ever were to attain political power. This is so because most of these disloyal elements are backing up Hugo Chávez. Examples of these groups are Bandera Roja (BR), Tercer Camino (TC), Desobediencia Popular(DP), Organización de Revolucionarias (OR), Venezuela Revolucionaria (VR), and the Liga Socialista (LS), among others.
Another disruptive element that contributes to the conflictive nature of the party system is the amazing multiplication in the number of parties that has taken place since the 1970s and has become a normal event in recent years. There are currently about 80 parties in comparison to eight in 1958.14 Of course that many of these parties act only on a regional basis and several do not even capture votes in elections. Yet the peril of this is found in the electoral laws of the country which at times have allowed parties to send a representative to congress by capturing less than 1 per cent of the votes in a given district.15
Although some scholars have insisted on the idea that the number of parties is not necessarily a destabilizing factor in a democracy, I argue that the current plethora of parties that exists in Venezuela and that continues to emerge as it becomes more difficult to achieve consensus within existing parties, is indeed a major source of instability. It reveals the conflictive nature of the party system as well as the growing discontent and inability of existing institutions to generate strong, long-term support. This is one more indicator of the nature of the critical juncture in which Venezuela finds itself, as the current system appears to be unable to manage political conflict and meet political demands.
In as much as parties cannot manage to narrow their internal discrepancies and are unable to adopt general, joint positions with regard to such key issues as to whom their presidential candidate should be, they become non-efficacious since internal divisions make it even harder to arrive at practical policy solutions and proposals. In consequence, it is expected they will be equally inefficient at delivering solutions and implementing them. The policy proposals that they do manage to agree on and implement, are seldom followed through completion and, for the most part, as in the case of AD and COPEI, they do not tackle problems at the root, which perpetuates the inefficiency of these policies as time goes by.
New Political Parties in the 1990s?
If we take Sartori’s and Mainwaring and Scully’s broad concept of political parties, that is, that parties are political organizations which “present at elections, and (are) capable of placing through elections candidates for public office,”16 it is easy to classify the new Venezuelan emergent political groups of the 1990s as such.
However, Venezuela’s political organizational activity in this decade resembles more a collage of micro-parties than the institutionalized system that Coppedge, Mainwaring and Scully describe in studies done before 1994. In light of the loss of legitimacy that the Venezuelan party system has experienced in the last decade, those with political aspirations have been compelled time and again to either break away from the party to which they might have originally belonged and form their own micro parties, or to run as independents and form loose coalitions that seem to be condemned to failure given the major individual discrepancies among the components of the coalitions. Movements such as Renovación, Apertura17, and Proyecto Venezuela are examples of the first case, while Convergencia, Patria para Todos18 and I.R.E.N.E.19 exemplify the second case.
Before studying some of these groups, it is necessary to point out that, in my opinion, real, consolidated political parties must do much more than simply support candidates for elections. Parties ought to have the ability to comprehend and adapt to their historical context and reality. Although party leadership is very important, it is not sufficient. A party must be able to survive and progress without its original leadership. Otherwise, this leadership becomes caudillismo, and parties’ interests are then sacrificed for personal interests. Based on these premises, I argue that, given the relatively young existence of the political movements that I will now describe, it is logical to conclude that they are yet to transform themselves in consolidated, real political parties. I consider them to be incipient political movements.
In consequence, my task in analyzing them lies on assessing their potential to fully develop as political parties and to present an alternative—perhaps even a substitute—for the traditional political Venezuelan parties.
1) Movimiento Quinta (V) República (MVR)
The Movimiento V República or MVR originated in 1997 as a result of the official registration and legalization by the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE)20 of the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR-200). MBR-200 was created in December 198321 by a group of captains (at the time) of the Venezuelan army among which were Hugo Chávez Frías, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, Joel Acosta Chirinos, Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, and Miguel Ortiz Contreras---the leading officers of the military coup of February 1992. 22
Initially, the MBR-200 took the character of a "logia militar," and it was estimated to have about 200 members in the National Armed Forces (FAN) at that time. After Chávez and the rest of the military officers who participated in the coup of February 199223 were freed from prison in 1994 by executive order of the current president, Rafael Caldera, they dedicated themselves to strengthen and broaden the basis of the movement to include retired officers as well as sectors within the low- and middle-income sectors of the population.24 The change in name of the movement stems from the fact that Venezuelan law prohibits political parties from naming themselves after Simón Bolívar or utilizing national symbols as party symbols.25
The newly christened MVR moved quickly to establish an ideological base and strategy rooted in the ideas underlying the formation of MBR-200. The name alone reflects the historical ambition entertained by the party, that is, to initiate the era of the fifth Venezuelan republic.26 In this sense, the party is said to have adopted ideas of three prominent Venezuelan historical figures to configure its ideological basis27: Simón Bolívar, Simón Rodríguez28, and Ezequiel Zamora29.30 Ideology in this context is not taken to mean political ideology per se, since up until now the party appears to include an incongruent mix of members whose political ideals range from the left to the ultra-right31, with the former outnumbering the latter. Hence the difficulty in classifying the ideological nature of this party.
The "decálogo" of the party can, however, give us a general idea of its political stance. Before describing the main characteristics of the party, it is important to state that the theoretical and semantic content of this document appears at times highly incoherent as ideas are juxtaposed and contextual definitions are never elaborated. In addition, it is possible to discern the recurrent utilization of military terminology and war language, which might be explained by the military origin of the organization. The constant repetition of the terms "strategy," "tactic," "battle," "war," "enemies," "operational plan," "struggle," "patriotism" throughout the document serves to illustrate this point.
In essence, the party identifies itself as a "movement of movements." It claims to have a theory of political ideology which it labels "the tree of the three roots." These three roots correspond to the "moral, political and educational ideas of Simón Bolívar, Simón Rodríguez and Ezequiel Zamora32." The document points out that the party's philosophy is shaped by a "humanistic, political and ethical theory," but that it is also nourished by "contemporary political tendencies regarding politics, morality and humanism" such as "christianism, Marxism, American political science (“politología norteamericana”)," and others. Thus the party claims to uphold a "political theory of synthesis" (“teoría politica de síntesis”), which can be understood as a joint project in which the "general political theory" described above and the “political theory of synthesis" are put together and interpreted according to Venezuela's current historical reality.33 From the perspective of a political scientist, it is difficult to imagine exactly how such convergence would take place, given the relatively opposite nature of the ideologies and political tendencies that the MVR appears to want to reconcile.
The document then goes on to state that the party will work to build three fronts: a strategic front, a tactical front, and an operational plan. The political strategy is based on the idea of gathering support to call for the establishment of a national constitutional assembly, since the main objective of the party (after getting Chávez elected) is "torcer el rumbo del continuismo neoliberal corrupto e implantar en el pais una democracia patriótica y popular, como fase inicial de la V República."34 Although the term "puntofijismo corrupto neoliberal" is used throughout the document to refer to the current establishment and, by extension, to the 40 years elapsed since the Pacto de Punto Fijo was signed, there are never arguments accompanying the use of the term to support what is meant by it, especially if one takes into account that the adoption of neoliberal economic policies by the government merely goes back to 1989, when Carlos Andrés Pérez delivered the infamous "paquete de medidas" that enraged a great portion of the population and led to the riots of February 4. Despite of the fact that current economic policy has been guided by market liberalization under the guidance of the IMF, the idea that President Caldera's administration can be labeled as "neoliberal" is highly debatable, especially if one takes into account the first two years of Caldera's administration.
Yet a more important aspect of the MVR's political rhetoric is the attainment of a "popular and patriotic democracy" as its primary objective. Nowhere in the text it is indicated what the term means, which leaves room for interpretation and speculation. Does "popular" mean "popular" in the sense that Marxism or even Chinese Communism utilize it? Or does it seek to emphasize the participatory aspect of all the population in the political system as in "democracy by the people, for the people and of the people”? Or can it be interpreted as an overt return to populism? And what exactly do they mean by "patriotic democracy"? No attempt to explain this is made in the mentioned document either.
In terms of organization, the MVR appears to have a complex structure. The organizational chart illustrates this point (Chart 1). From an organizational perspective, the MVR thus proves to be the most consolidated among the three movements studied here, but its consolidation is seriously challenged by the amorphous mix of ideologies and different factions that conform the party. For instance, in a recent meeting held by the “Zamorana” faction of the movement, led by William Izarra, the group considered the possibility of disassociating itself from the “Chavista” faction if, assuming Chávez won the election, the group did not receive “a significant quota of ministries.” 35
National, Regional, and Local Structure of the MVR36
Consejos Patrióticos Municipales Consejo Patriótico Nacional Consejos Patrióticos Estadales
(CPE) (CPN) (CTM)
Consejos Patrióticos Parroquiales Dirección Estratégica Nacional
Dirección Estratégica Zonal
Redes de Poder Popular (DEZ)
Comando Táctico Parroquial Comando Táctico Nacional Comandos Tácticos Estadales
(CTP) (CTN) (CTE)
Dirección Nacional Dirección Ejecutiva Dirección de Organización
Dirección de Política Dirección de Política Electoral Dirección de Prensa y Propaganda
Dirección de Administración y Finanzas Dirección de Enlace y Comunicaciones
Dirección de Movilización Popular
The fact that the movement is part of the Polo Patriático, the national coalition of about 12 groups and parties that has backed up Chávez in these elections, and the differences between all of these movements, may prove a serious challenge to Chávez’s leadership in the near future, with the potential of becoming a destabilizing factor if Chávez were elected president.
2) Proyecto Venezuela (PV)
Proyecto Venezuela was born out of an independent regional political initiative in the industrial state of Carabobo known as Proyecto Carabobo. This regional initiative was brought forward by the then governor of the state, Henrique Salas Romer, in 1995. In 1996, Salas Romer initiates the formal process to transform the movement into a national political party by registering the party with the then Consejo Supremo Electoral (CSE). Proyecto Venezuela has served as Salas’ political platform as presidential candidate since 1997.37
As a regional force, the organization has gained an important foothold and state recognition. This is evidenced by the excellent performance it had in Carabobo where Salas Romer’s son, Henrique Salas Feo, ran for governor and won with 50.32 per cent of the vote in comparison to 33.04 per cent obtained by the PP’s candidate38. At the national level, however, the party’s performance is of less salience. This is partially explained by the mobilizational resources and the strong tradition of support that AD has in the plains and the southern part of the territory and, especially, by the ability of the MVR to recruit supporters in those areas. In spite of this, Proyecto Venezuela had a remarkable outcome in the regional and congressional election as it managed to obtain over 12 per cent of the seats in Congress, thus becoming the third electoral force in the country.39 The significance of this fact is summarized as follows:
La votación de Proyecto Venezuela se nutre en su casi totalidad del universo votante históricamente cercano a COPEI. Proyecto Venezuela logró el 8N, además, respecto al voto socialcristiano, lo que no logró el 93 Convergencia: superar en caudal electoral global al partido.40
This remark introduces the fact that, though independent, Proyecto Venezuela has a Christian Democrat orientation. In terms of the political agenda, Salas Romer and, therefore, PV call for three main initiatives: “despartidización, desmarginalización and descentralización”41 Of these, the first one appears to be the most significant for it asserts Salas’ independent platform to the extent that, up until now, he has rejected any attempt of approach by traditional parties. With regard to party statutes or internal structure, no information was available at the time of writing.
According to Francisco Suniaga, coordinator of the party’s government program, the origin of this movement goes back to 1988 when Freddy Rodríguez, an engineer, founded the organization. Renovación started out as mini-party at the state level and placed itself to the left of the political spectrum. In 1988, the party endorsed Edmundo Chirinos, candidate for the leftist Movimiento Electoral del Pueblo (MEP). In 1995, the party was granted national status.
Toward the end of September 1997, the debate to choose the presidential candidate who would run on AD’s ticket for the 1998 elections was initiated within that party. The party was internally divided mainly between those who supported Claudio Fermín, who had been AD’s candidate in the 1993 presidential election, and those who supported Luis Alfaro Ucero. The syndicalist faction of the party proposed that the candidate be elected “by consensus and not through primary elections,” thus disregarding internal party statutes. Fermín interpreted this as a maneuver on the part of Alfaro to get himself the party’s nomination. A month later, out of frustration, Fermín left AD.42
In Suniaga’s words, “[u]na vez fuera se le presenta un dilema (a Claudio): crear una organización propia o recurrir a una organización ya formada.” Because
the supreme electoral organization, then the CSE and now the CNE, is dominated by AD y COPEI, it was understood at the time that to legalize a party of his own would be a very difficult task (Chávez, Irene and CAP had been trying to legalize their respective parties, MVR, IRENE and Apertura, for a year). It is in this situation that Claudio receives a proposal from Renovación to run as the organization’s candidate and to use it as his political ticket. There was the happy coincidence that Renovación had also been the name given to AD’s progressive group in 1992, which had opposed Alfaro in AD’s internal elections that year.
Thus Renovación emerges from this electoral need which is put forward by the country’s institutional deficiencies. There was never an inauguration act and when this point was addressed, I was in favor of vinvulating the movement to the Socialist International, but I could never gather enough support for my proposal. The majority understood that it was simply an electoral problem and that Claudio Fermín could fill all the gaps.43
Two lessons can be drawn from this narrative which serves to confirm the flaws of Venezuela’s party system. On the one hand, we notice the inability of political groups to understand the need for party institutionalization to which good leadership can be no replacement. The fact that Fermín’s supporters are, generally speaking, younger and more progressive than the majority of AD’s members, seems to reveal that an understanding of the role of political parties and of party consolidation is lacking and has yet to be adequately assessed. On the other hand, the experience of Renovación shows how internally divided AD is and how myopic its leadership has become. By being unable to go beyond personal interests (Alfaro’s and his supporters’), AD lost the only member who might have given the party a greater chance in the presidential election.
The prospects for Renovación to gather strength and constitute itself into a real party, capable of gaining popular support, appear to be minimal, if not non-existent. This is evidenced by the poor performance the party staged in the regional and congressional elections. In the lower chamber, the party obtained 1.38 per cent of the total vote, and in the upper chamber it only received 1.35 per cent.44 These results might not have come as a surprise to the party, since a national survey taken in September, revealed that, out of 1,500 surveyed, only 1 per cent identified themselves with the party. The same survey also revealed that 69 per cent of the population believed that a government in the hands of Fermín would be a failure, in contrast to only 11 per cent who thought his government would succeed.45
Suniaga’s reflections on the movement’s weaknesses as early as October 1998, further supports this line of thought and serves to conclude my argument that Renovación is far from being able to become a major political force in the near future.
Renovación became a party composed of former adecos and it was perceived as such from the outside. Since there was neither ideological nor programmatic definition of any sort, there was not a single element that allowed for the evaluation of the organization’s political course. Claudio Fermín’s strong leadership ended up becoming a very large shadow on the party, which now appears as a personal failed project, with serious flaws in its internal democracy and with no institutional mechanism to make decisions. It is a smaller, yet less democratic AD.46
Never before has the democratic system in Venezuela been challenged in the blatant way we observe today. The events of February 27 and 28, 1989, the so-called Caracazo, formally initiated a process of political criticism and turmoil that reached its peak with the coups d’état launched by different sectors of the military on February 4, and November 27, 1992, respectively. The use of military rebellion and force can be labeled as the climax of the eroding forces that have slowly but surely permeated the legitimacy of the Venezuelan political system. We have yet to see the denouement of this process and, in this sense, the presidential election of December 6, 1998 will constitute the closure of a juncture and the start of a new one, as it is clearly understood that the outcome of such an election will determine the way in which the current discontent will be addressed.
It remains to be seen what legacy this will bring. There are, however, reasons to contend that the future will bring more hardship to Venezuelans than many now are ready to concede. Indeed, there are sufficient grounds to affirm that Venezuela appears to be on the verge of political breakdown. This paper was thus based on the belief, that a democratic breakdown is both possible and probable in Venezuela, unless the country’s political institutions and, especially, political parties, assume a credible commitment to reform themselves.
Two worrisome trends can be identified in the formation of new political organizations in Venezuela in the 1990s. First, there is a tendency for parties to split. There is a growing number of small and fractionated parties which in turn reflects a high degree of personalism or caudillismo on the part of its leaders. This factionalism is accompanied by the formation of disloyal groups with leftist tendencies. Second, we observe a higher degree of polarization between the new groups. The fragmentation of the party system along with its polarization is thus the most dangerous challenge facing Venezuelan democracy.
In addition, I have described the emergence and main characteristics of three new political actors: Movimiento V República, Proyecto Venezuela, and Renovación. I have concluded that, at the present time, these groups have yet to consolidate themselves as real political parties. In this respect, and based on the outcome of the regional and congressional elections of November 8, 1998, it is possible to affirm that, while MVR has been most effective at gathering popular support, it faces the challenge of overcoming differences with the other groups of the coalition that supports Hugo Chávez Frías and of which MVR is a fundamental component. An additional weakness of the incipient party is that of having a confusing set of ideological formulas as its theoretical base. This issue will have to be resolved if the organization intends to become a multiclass party.
In the case of Proyecto Venezuela, its major challenge lies in transforming its 12 per cent congressional share and its two governorships (Carabobo and Yaracuy) in a national force capable of advancing Salas’ political and economic ideas. This will prove very difficult but not impossible to achieve, as long as, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election on December 6, Salas continues to promote PV and to establish the basis for additional political leadership that can continue what he has done so far.
In the case of Renovación, the situation appears to be less promising. Given its poor performance on November 8, which reflected the lack of internal institutionalization of the organization, and its candidate’s decision to abandon the electoral contest, it is unlikely that the party will evolve into a more e institutionalized organization. In fact, chances are it will continue to decline as a political force until it disappears.
As for the traditional political parties, AD and COPEI, it is clear that they must reform or face extinction. Following the disastrous outcome of November 8, and despite the fact that AD managed to obtain 22 per cent of the votes, these parties must understand that their legitimacy has eroded and must take the necessary steps to reform themselves. There have already been attempts to do so, as the parties have met to discuss these problems both internally and with each other (on November 19, 1998), but no consensus has been reached. AD and its candidate, Alfaro Ucero, insist that, if an antichávez coalition is to be formed, Alfaro must be the candidate. Yet no serious talks of commitments to internal reform have been made.
COPEI, on the other hand, seems to have finally accepted the reality of its defeat. Its candidate, Irene Sáez, has agreed to step down in the hope that a coalition can be built to defeat Chávez. But as long as the motor behind this act is driven by the interest to defeat Chávez and not by a real desire to form a stable and long-lasting coalition, in the long-run, this initiative is doomed to failure.
All in all, as a Venezuelan who is deeply concerned by the possible breakdown of the democratic system, I must hope and work for the best. On December 6, I will cast my vote and hopefully, while not convinced, my prediction will not be realized. In any case, I am convinced that, to save democracy, future generations must be able to believe and act in consonance with the following premise:
Precisa que los gobernantes que aspiren al afecto de los pueblos y al título de demócratas llenen todo su deber; el político, mediante un gobierno de avance ininterrumpido y de osadía antirreaccionaria, antifascista y antioligárquica; y el administrativo, mediante un diáfano y cuidadoso empleo de la riqueza pública. Y en cuanto a los partidos democráticos, cualquiera que sea su tipo, deben llenar también el deber de exigir todo eso (…) Nada de términos medios. Democracia y no media democracia. Y sin honradez administrativa, el régimen democrático no es completo.47