Decentralization and the Party System in Venezuela

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

On the December 3, 1989, Venezuelans for the first time in the country's history went to the polls to directly elect their local and regional political leaders. An important decentralization process was subsequently initiated with the elections of municipal mayors and state governors. Since then, a number of non-traditional political parties have emerged and developed, like the socialist MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo) and Causa R (Causa Radical).1 These two parties have triumphed in several municipalities and federal states in the elections of mayors and governors, thus seriously threatening the almost hegemonic position of the two Venezuelan traditional parties - i.e. social democratic AD (Acción Democrática) and Christian democratic COPEI (Comité de Organización Político Electoral Independiente). Both AD and COPEI, the country's main political organizations since its democratization in 1958, have by tradition been strongly centralized parties. For more than three decades they dominated national politics, often through strategic pacts and alliances. Between 1973 and 1988, the two parties together captured between 80% and 93% of the total votes cast in every presidential election. With the municipal, regional and national elections in 1998 and 2000, the political panorama underwent even more dramatic changes. Several entirely new political parties have emerged, most notably the MVR (Movimiento V República) of current President Hugo Chávez Frías, but also parties like Proyecto Venezuela, with roots in the industrial state of Carabobo and its capital Valencia, and Primero Justicia, rooted in the greater Caracas area. A fundamental hypothesis in this study is that the decentralization process has contributed strongly to changes in the structure of the Venezuelan party system. A main purpose here is therefore to examine these changes within the post-1989 party system. Since we deal with a two-party system rupture, some words are needed on the conditions party systems tend to collapse. Henry Dietz and David Myers present a three-part model on the probabilities of party system collapse or weakening.

1. Some kind of acute and long-lived crisis (e.g. economic or social),

2. The parties of the system are perceived as incapable to confront the crisis, and:

3. An alternative party or leader is considered as attractive as an option.

The authors suggest that a collapse of a party system is most likely when a combination of these factors occur (Dietz & Myers 2003:3). I argue that these ideas do not conflict with the implications of a decentralization reform on a party system, since the first two factors can function as a pressure for reform. Furthermore, once introduced decentralization, local and regional leaders can be perceived as options to the previously dominant party/parties.

Three fundamental conditions are often mentioned while discussing decentralization: the existence of territorial units to administrate, the right of the citizens to select their own regional/local political leaders, and the auto-financing capacity of the distinct political-territorial unities. Decentralization in the Latin American countries2 was probably introduced both as a result of an increasing political discontent among the population as the economic crisis deepened, and as important steps in the reforms of State democratization. At the same time, multilateral banks also pronounced strong pressure for decentralization as a basic condition when economic support was given. In this continental context Peter Spink concludes that the Venezuelan decentralization process has been one of the more successful ones in the continent, and stands out as the most powerful as for immediate impacts (Spink 1998:142-144).

II. PARTYARCHY

From a democratic point of view, post-1958 Venezuela has shown some basic characteristics of a democratic system, such as party and organization plurality, right for the citizens to vote and a judicial system independent from the government. …