Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

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Local government in Venezuela
overshadowed by strong centre

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

1 May 2009: The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is divided into 23 states, a capital district and 335 municipalities, as well as federal dependencies. The municipalities are headed by an elected mayor and council, elected every three years. The current Venezuelan constitution, which saw the country renamed in the image of Latin American revolutionary and liberator Simon Bolivar, was drafted and approved by referendum in 1999, following the election of President Hugo Chavez on a platform to introduce it a year earlier.

The 23 states (estados) of Venezuela originate from the provinces under the Spanish colonial era, though a series of mergers has taken place since independence in 1821 and the current number increased by three in the late 1990s. In terms of the balance of power between the federal government and the states themselves, the Federal War of 1859-1863 saw power effectively centralised and a historical legacy begun. Political instability ever since, especially the historical tendency towards caudillismo (populist military dictatorship), has prevented any meaningful devolution. In 1969, a presidential decree grouped the states together in 10 administrative regions for central government purposes, further consolidating the centre’s traditional dominance.

Under the 1999 constitution, the federal district was reconstituted. Although remaining as a state of equal parity within the federative system, the new Metropolitan District of Caracas (Distrito Capital) includes the main municipality and four others falling under neighbouring Miranda state, each with their own mayor. The Mayor of Caracas is Juan Barreto, who was elected for a four-year term in 2004. Within the federal constitution, the Federal Territories (Dependencias Federales de Ultramar) cover the scattered islands in the Caribbean. The islands have a fluctuating seasonal population and local government matters fall under the jurisdiction of the Mayor of Caracas.

Venezuelan local government, important because of the centre’s dominance in state affairs, consists of 335 municipalities (municipios), which are unitary in nature and headed by an elected mayor and council. These are further divided into 1,084 civil parishes (parroquias). In some areas radical decentralisation is taking place within the parroquias, with community control of local services and resources being pioneered by councils. The new constitution provides for Local Councils of Public Planning to bring about grassroots democracy, though these remain embroyonic. While the empowerment rhetoric remains in place, practical concerns of the beleagured governing coalition, which operates on a majoritarian basis, mean these are not enacted.

The current Venezuelan constitution, that of the Fifth Republic, came into force in December 1999 and at 350 articles is the world’s longest and most complicated. The constitution was drafted by the constitutional assembly provided for under the mandate of Hugo Chavez’s 1998 election as president under the enduring 26th constitution of 1961. The new constitution was notable for renaming the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, claiming the constitutional principles adopted honoured the legacy of Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of Latin America from Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century. The constitution also contained five branches of government (rather than the usual three), namely the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, plus the electoral and citizenry branches. The electoral branch takes the form of the electoral tribunal (Consejo Nacional Electoral) and the citizenry is represented by the ombudsman (defensor del pueblo). The new constitution also introduced a two-term limit for extended presidential terms of six years and the right of recall for electors over the presidency.  It also provides for state healthcare as a human right and proscribes the privatisation of this.

As part of his attempts towards the establishment of a Bolivarian socialist republic, Chavez has sought to both consolidate the left into one United Socialist Party and secure further constitutional change by referendum.  The 2007 referendum organised to this end proposed to end presidential term limits and allow the president to reorganise state governments and dismiss elected mayors and governors.  The proposals were defeated, with 51 per cent of voters going against them, though the 44 per cent abstention rate suggested that many of Chavez' own supporters had failed to turn out.  However, in February 2009 voters backed a second referendum to lift the term limits and potentially allow him to stand in 2012.

Hugo Chavez was first elected as Venezuela's 53rd president in December 1998 and re-elected in 2000. He survived a coup attempt in 2002 and a recall referendum in 2004. The National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional) is unicameral in nature and has 165 seats elected to by proportional list and single member constituencies.

In the last set of local elections, held November 2008, parties allied to Chavez’s governing coalition secured the most seats in municipal and state assemblies, although opposition groups were successful in the capital city Caracas and the country's most populous states, Miranada and Zulia. Subsequent political pressure from supporters of the governing PSUV against the mayors of Maracaibo and Caracas has seen them usurped from power, culminating in the flight from the country by Maracaibo's Manuel Rosales ahead of a corruption trial.

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