Political Parties: A Cross-National Survey
New York: The Free Press, 1980: pp. 582-583
VENEZUELA: The Party System in 1950-1956 and 1957-19621
Political party activity, and certainly democratic government, came later to Venezuela than it did to most other major South American countries. From its independence in 1823 to the death of Juan Vicente Gómez in 1935, Venezuela experienced a series of dictatorships. The traditional Liberal-Conservative division within South American ruling elites never really coagulated into party organizations and competition during the 1800s, and the party activity that did exist was largely snuffed out during the quarter century that Gómez ruled. The environment for party activity opened up after his death, but the traditional division no longer served to structure opposing political forces into Liberal and Conservative parties. Instead, a struggle began between progressive democratic forces and reactionary authoritarian defenses. By 1947, a climate had developed that allowed a free election for president, won by Rómulo Gallegos, the Acción Democrática (AD) candidate. But a year later, the army engineered a bloodless coup, dissolving the AD and soon afterward the Communist Party, as Venezuela became ruled by a three-man junta.
With the AD and the Communists still banned, elections were held in 1952 for a constituent assembly to approve a new constitution. Groups supporting the government won only a plurality of the votes but captured a majority of the seats in the assembly. With the junta controlling the assembly, Colonel Pérez Jiménez was appointed president by the army and confirmed by the assembly, despite opposition from the Republican Democratic Union (URD) and the Christian Social Party (COPEI) leadership. The assembly approved a new constitution, promulgated on April 15, 1953. Under this constitution, the constituent assembly formed a new government to last five years, elected Pérez Jiménez as constitutional president, and appointed members of the new national congress plus many other members of the government at the state and municipal levels. Repression of party activity continued under Pérez Jiménez, who lasted in office through 1957, when fraudulent elections renewed his presidency.
In January of 1958, Pérez Jiménez was overthrown. A new era of party activity was begun as free elections were held late that year under the supervision of a junta led by Rear Admiral Wolfgang Larrazabal. Though candidate himself for the presidency on the URD ticket, Larrazabal lost to Rómulo Betancourt of the AD. Rafael Caldera of COPEI was a distant third. Another election was held on schedule in 1963. The AD candidate, this time Raúl Leoni, won again, leading Caldera of COPEI and Villalba of URD in the balloting.
After the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez's dictatorship in 1958, Venezuela began a period of competitive party politics that persisted through the December 1978 elections. All three of our original parties have continued, although numerous other parties existed, no new parties qualified for study.
Original Parties, Continuing
391 Democratic Republican Union. The second largest party following the elections of 1958, the URD has rather steadily lost seats until it remains one of several parties with token legislative representation. Nevertheless, it has survived.
392 Social Christian Party. COPEI has steadily increased its representation to 47 percent of the seats won in the 1978 elections for the 1979 congress (not portrayed on our graph). COPEI's presidential candidate, Luis Herrera Campíns also won, returning the presidency to COPEI after it had been held by the Democratic Action Party.
393 Democratic Action Party. AD has also increased its representation consistently since 1960, and it too won 47 percent of the seats in the 1978 elections for the 1979 congress. The AD candidate came in second to COPEI's, and the two together took more than 85 percent of the vote.
With COPEI and AD alternating in the presidency since 1963 and with both parties in 1979 accounting for 94 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, it seems that Venezuela has moved from the no-party system of Pérez Jiménez through a decade of multiparty politics and into a developing two-party system.