Internal conflicts within Venezuela’s governing Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) show no sign of abating, despite President Chávez’ call for the democratization of the party last Sunday. The apparent power struggle between different currents in the party is quickly becoming moot, as any possibility of adjusting the electoral registry is fast disappearing. Yesterday, the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court overruled an attempt by the pro-Chávez political alliance, including the MVR, to delay the local elections and reopen candidacy postulations.

Internal primaries held by the MVR on April 10-13th to elect candidates for the upcoming August 7th election of municipal councils were the first primaries in the party’s history, and the first for any party, says MVR spokesperson Héctor Dávila. Taking a chance with such a democratizing process is a risk for any party, said National Assembly (AN) president and MVR leader Nicholas Maduro in a press conference last night. “It’s a risk for any political organization because it unleashes people’s passions,” said Maduro.

Maduro may be right. The MVR’s efforts to democratize have been met by powerful grassroots pressure to go all the way. After Chávez won a referendum on his mandate as President last August with over 59 per cent of the vote, his supporters began calling for primaries to elect candidates for regional elections scheduled just two months later, on October 31st, 2004. The unfeasibility of primaries in the short period between referendum and regionals convinced most rank and file militants to shelve the issue, but not before they extracted a promise from Chávez that next time it would be different.

“We owe a debt to the Constitution, and to the Venezuelan people,” said Chávez, referring to the failure to hold primaries for the regional elections while speaking to his cabinet, top civilian and military advisers, and newly elected mayors and governors at a special meeting in early November. But, rather than open primaries for all 5,618 positions to be contested in the municipal council elections this August, the only primaries were held by the MVR for their own portion of the pro-Chávez slate.

The alliance was thus divided according to the perceived relative strength of the four participating Chavista parties (MVR, PPT, UPV, and Podemos), using the October regional elections: 70% for the MVR, 30% for everyone else. Though ‘everyone else’ complained of MVR unilateralism and power-mongering, they had little choice in the matter: the MVR is one of the largest parties in Latin America, and surely the largest in Venezuela, while the PPT, UPV, and Podemos are miniscule by comparison. Their disproportionate representation in Chávez’ cabinet is a result of their ability at turning out intelligent, dedicated and seasoned political cadres.

The problem began when the MVR held internal elections for 5,200 of the 5,618 positions to be contested in August. The number represents a 92.5% share of candidacies, as opposed to the 70% the MVR had limited themselves to in negotiations with the other pro-Chávez parties. This is now presenting the MVR leadership with a tricky question: do they tell 1,267 candidates that have already won their primaries and been registered with the National Electoral Council (CNE) to drop out? Or do they go back on our promise to the other parties, while still arguing for a united Chavista slate in August (leaving ‘everyone else with a meager 6.5%)?

The former is sure to cause outrage among rank and file MVR protesters, while the latter is sure to destroy the MVR’s credibility with other Chavista parties. And both are likely to meet with strong disapproval from Chávez himself.

The Plot Thickens

On the day the MVR announced the results-also the last day for registering candidates with the National Electoral Council (CNE)-rank and file party militants staged outraged protests outside the MVR Caracas offices denouncing an alleged fraud.

Since these denunciations, the media has made much of the apparent emergence of different ‘currents’ within the MVR. The favorite has been that of the mayor of Metropolitan Caracas, Juan Barreto and of the mayor of the Caracas municipality of Libertador, Freddy Bernal. But both Barreto and Bernal have publicly denied that any division exists, and have called for unity within the MVR.

Other major players in the MVR squabble are the party director Francisco Ameliach; Governor of Miranda and former Vice-President Diosdado Cabello; AN president Nicholas Maduro; and party president William Lara, all members of the MVR’s National Technical Command (CTN).

According to Ameliach, mayors Juan Barreto and Freddy Bernal should conciliate in the interest of unity. But both Bernal and Barreto have publicly denied the existence of conflict between them. On Monday, Bernal told reporters that neither he, nor Barreto represent a current in the MVR. “There’s only one current, and that’s the current of Hugo Chávez, and the MVR should be one and cannot have internal factions [sic],” said Bernal. He then added that “what there is, is a manipulation of some leaders trying to control the party in Caracas.”

For his part, Barreto said of himself and Bernal “we both share the leadership of Chávez, and beyond any political differences between us are the interests of the people and an organization that gives lessons in democracy.”

Though all of these various actors have made public statements that are undeniably chiding of the others, the existence or relevance of the alleged currents remains unclear. What they do appear to share is a common disapproval of the rank and file protests alleging corruption and favoritism in the primaries. “Internal problems should be resolved in house,” said party director Francisco Ameliach. Confusion Reigns?

As for the denunciations, a special commission headed up by Maduro, Ameliach, and Lara has been formed to hear them out. Yet the scale of the alleged irregularities is hard to judge. According to Ameliach, there have only been 20 complaints out of a total of 22,000 candidates in the primaries. “This fact should give us faith that the [primaries] were a success,” said Ameliach. Yet in his weekly televised address last Sunday, Chávez said Diosdado Cabello had assured him that only 2% of the postulations were problematic, which would be 440 cases.

The primaries were undeniably a step forward for the application of the ‘participatory democracy,’ oft-promoted by the MVR. But the tensions and divisions among the leadership, between the rank and file and the leadership, and between the MVR and the other parties in the pro-Chávez alliance that the primaries have released maybe difficult to sweep under the rug.

On his weekly television show Aló Presidente last Sunday, President Chávez referred to the MVR’s internal conflict, noting “it cannot remain the same little group as always, the same national directorate as always. Some directorates in each state that later perpetuate themselves and from which the bases receive the party line. No-that’s the old politics,” and he called on political parties to democratize themselves internally.

While accusing the media of amplifying the conflict, Chávez conceded that “it’s good that we see the caricature [of the internal battles] to make us reflect.”