Before the formation of the existing political parties, political conflict in Venezuela was confined to the traditionally Latin American centralist-federalist debate, with few actual differences in governments. Since the late 1950s, however, a stable party system evolved. Each political group had its own ballot with its own distinctive color and symbol, so that illiteracy was not a barrier to political participation. Constitutional provisions barring the military from political involvement further ensured the stability of the party system and the continuity of elected civilian leadership. But Chávez came into office promising to dismantle the party system that dominated Venezuelan politics for more than four decades. While his left-of-center coalition remained firmly in control in 1999 and early 2000, it was not known how the new constitution and political reforms would affect other parties in the long run. All parties were allowed to compete for national, regional, and municipal posts in the proposed May 2000 elections.
Since 1958, the dominant force in Venezuelan politics was the Democratic Action Party (Acción Democrática—AD). It grew out of the socialist movement, which unified under the National Democratic Party (PDN). That party splintered, with a Moscow-oriented group forming the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) and the nationalist and democratic-socialist faction creating the AD.
The left has been fragmented throughout modern Venezuelan politics. After the split between AD and the PCV, the advent of Fidel Castro in Cuba caused further fragmentation. A group of AD members left the party to form the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria—MIR). The Armed Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional—FALN) took to the field and attempted a guerrilla uprising. The PCV remained loyal to Moscow and at times battled the FALN openly. All of these movements were denounced by the AD, and in 1962 the MIR and PCV were barred from political activity. The FALN, which never bothered with legal political action, was subdued, and with it hopes of a Castroite takeover died. The most recent development from the left has been the emergence of the Movement for Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo—MAS), which took 10% of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies in 1988. MAS is an attempt to rejuvenate the left by a faction of the old PCV.
The right has been characterized by small parties without much chance of electoral success alone. Some have been able to form coalitions with larger parties to achieve some success within the system. One such party, the Democratic Republican Union (Unión Republicana Democrática—URD), has been a governing partner with the AD during the Leoni government (1963–68). The Committee for Free Elections (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente—COPEI), also known as the Social Christian Party (Partido Social-Cristiano), is a Christian Democratic party, with the center-right implications of that movement. It has succeeded as an opposition party to the AD, occasionally taking advantage of splits in the AD's governing coalition or within the AD itself.
In 1947, the AD won the first free elections ever held in Venezuela. The PCV also fielded a candidate, as did COPEI. These three parties were outlawed during the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez, and carried on their activities clandestinely. In December 1958, after Pérez Jiménez had been driven from power, free elections were held. The presidential victor, Rómulo Betancourt, formed a coalition government of the AD, COPEI, and URD.
The AD and COPEI reached several agreements over the years to cooperate with each other and to exclude the more leftist parties from the Venezuelan system. After the COPEI victory in 1968, Venezuela became a more competitive two-party system, with AD and COPEI competing for power. Agreements between AD and COPEI in 1970 and 1973 called for cooperation in appointive posts, so the competition has been controlled. AD and COPEI have dominated the system since, although the 1994 election of Caldera as the candidate of a four-party coalition, the National Convergence (Convergencia), suggested a movement away from the two-party arrangement.
Since 1998, Chávez, who came to power backed by the leftist Patriotic Pole, a coalition of parties that includes the Communist Party of Venezuela, has dramatically changed the power structure in the country. Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement is the largest party in Venezuela but it is a highly personalist party and few expect it to survive beyond Chávez's political career. The two traditional parties, AD and COPEI, have not recovered from the 1998 election and despite having a few seats in parliament, have been unsuccessful in mounting an organized democratic opposition against Chávez. For all practical matters, the only party that exists in Venezuela as of mid 2003 is Chávez's Fifth Republic with the rest of the political spectrum being highly fractionalized.