The 1961 constitution provides for a federal republic of twenty states, two federal territories, the federal district, and seventy-two island dependencies. Each state contains two levels of government, the district and the municipal level. There are 202 districts in the country, between 6 and 16 in each state. Districts are divided into municipalities and are constitutionally independent of the state in economic and administrative matters, subject only to national laws and regulations.
Local government was not strong in Venezuela, and it can be argued that Venezuelans gave greater loyalty to their states than to their local government bodies. The 1961 constitution delegates the establishment of municipalities and other local entities to the states. The municipalities elect their own officials and may collect certain revenues, but they are subject to numerous legal, financial, and political limitations imposed by national officials.
The powers of the states are restricted to those areas not granted to the nation or the municipalities. The states are permitted to merge, cede territory, or change their boundaries with the consent of the Senate. Although it had not done so through 1990, the national Congress may, by a two-thirds vote, expand the powers of the states to include matters previously limited to the consideration of the central government. The states have also remained dependent on the national government for most of their revenue.
In 1990 the direct election of governors was still too recent to indicate to what extent the state executives, now with their own political basis, would be able to exert greater authority than they did as appointed officials. In any case, the governor's powers derive from his or her control of the state's law enforcement machinery, the drafting of the state's budget (which is submitted to the state legislature), and the execution of the directives of the national executive. Unicameral state legislative assemblies are popularly elected and exercise limited powers.
States are divided into districts, the number of districts depending on the size of the state. Districts are governed by popularly elected councils; elections for council members take place at the same time as those for national officials. Like all popularly elected officials, council members serve five-year terms. The number of council members varies, but all councils are presided over by a chairman, who serves in that position for a one-year term. The district councils have limited decision-making powers regarding such matters as the distribution of national funds channeled through the state executives. The councils are charged with providing the local services not provided by the national government.
The districts are divided into municipalities, which are also governed by elected councils. The municipal councils have no decision-making powers and serve as administrative units in charge of garbage collection, sewer construction, and other municipal services. The councils also provide information about local politics to the district council and serve as advocates for local citizens with the national bureaucracy. In Venezuela, however, links between local citizens and the national government have often been more effectively established by the political parties and informally rather than by the local bureaucracy.
These links between local citizens and the national government might have to be redefined, however, after the Democratic Action (Acción Democrática--AD) party's major defeat in the December 1989 local elections. These elections were particularly significant because, for the first time, they involved the elections of mayors (a position that previously did not exist) as well as 20 state governors. Another innovation in these elections allowed voters to cast their ballots directly for the municipal councilors of their choice if they preferred this to the traditional system of voting according to party slates.
President Pérez's AD lost gubernatorial elections in nine key states, including oil-producing Zulia, the industrial state of Carabobo, and the state of Miranda. The opposition made similar inroads at the municipal level, with 95 of the mayoral posts won by COPEI and 24 by other parties, as compared with AD's 150. The immediate result of these electoral setbacks was a renewed and more vocal discussion about the degree to which states should be able to manage their own financial resources.
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