March 8, 2007
Hugo Chávez's move to leftist autocracy faces some unexpected opposition from some of his own supporters
SINCE he won a further six-year term in a presidential election last December, Hugo Chávez has had his foot firmly on the accelerator of his “Bolivarian revolution”. He has promised sweeping constitutional changes, including indefinite re-election; nationalised “strategic” industries; and instituted rule by decree. He is also pressing forward with plans to gather together his disparate supporters into a single revolutionary organisation.
Now he has hit his first speed bump since the election. It is over the new party, provisionally called the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, whose leader will of course be Mr Chávez himself. The largest chavista party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), has already agreed to disband. So have others, including the smaller UPV. “My comandante gives the order—we obey,” said its leader, Lina Ron, without irony. “Who am I to question the second Liberator of the Republic, the messiah God sent to save the people?”
But at separate meetings this month, three of the more important among the score of parties that support the president declined, at least for now, to join the new outfit. Ismael García, the leader of Podemos, said his party stood for “democratic socialism” and favoured a grass-roots debate about the new party. “It's very bad to have just one form of thought,” added Ramón Martínez, a Podemos state governor, in a reference to the militaristic command structure favoured by Mr Chávez, a former army officer. Motherland for All (PPT) and the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) also demurred, saying they awaited details of the new party, its platform and statutes.
Eleazar Díaz Rangel, a newspaper editor sympathetic to the government, calls this the chavista movement's “worst internal crisis”. But it is not the first difficulty Mr Chávez has faced in organising political backing for a revolution whose linchpins are his own personality, the army and oil money. The MVR is a ragbag of factions whose only principle has been unquestioned support for its leader. Podemos, the PPT and the PCV are older parties (or descend from them), with some ideas of their own, ranging from old-fashioned Marxism-Leninism to democratic socialism. Between them they hold a fifth of the seats in the National Assembly—a purely chavista body since the opposition boycotted a legislative election in 2005 (see chart).
Mr Chávez has always detested parties. He sees them, with some justification, as mere vehicles for the ambitions of potential rivals. “Those who don't want to accompany me are free to pursue their own path,” he said in December. “Their ministers will leave the government. I want a single party to govern with me.” To those who argued that they had contributed votes to his election victory he responded, “Don't deceive yourselves—those votes belong to Chávez.” Some 800,000 of his 7.3m votes came via the Podemos ticket. Another 600,000 were cast for the PPT.
Mr Chávez has fewer problems with the military wing of his revolution. After eight years in power, he has a tight grip on the barracks. The armed forces are to gain the prefix “Bolivarian”—a reference both to Simón Bolívar, South America's independence hero, and to the president's own movement. In defiance of a constitutional ban on “political militancy” in the armed forces, Mr Chávez is using them to promote his “21st century socialism”. Generals are now heard to proclaim “socialism or death!” Army cadets are among the “brigades” of young people sent out to preach the new socialist gospel.
Mr Chávez is still very popular, especially with the poor: he won 63% of the vote in December. But there is less enthusiasm for his new radical programme. “His leadership is based more on the social and human dimension, and not on the ideological ingredients,” says Oscar Schemel, a pollster. “In focus groups, people say, ‘Why didn't he tell us before the elections he was going to do all this?’” Mr Schemel's latest survey found that only 41% rated Mr Chávez's performance as “good” to “excellent”, down from 49% in November.
Even many chavistas are wary of the ever-greater power wielded by their president. Indefinite re-election is opposed by over 60% of respondents in his poll, according to Mr Schemel. Some of the president's academic sympathisers are expressing alarm. The new party is being set up “without debate, without consultation, and...in arrogant terms,” argues Margarita López Maya, a historian.
There is no sign that the president's leadership is under serious threat. Manuel Rosales, who won 37% for the opposition in December, has since lost popularity. Mr Chávez can afford, for now, to brush aside the challenge posed by his reluctant allies—though he stressed that the door remains open for them to join the new party in the future. The bigger question is how far down the revolutionary road Venezuelans as a whole will be prepared to travel with their president.