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Bolivia: Departmental and Local Government
Country Study > Chapter 4 > Government and Politics > The Legislature > Departmental and Local Government


In 1989 Bolivia was divided into nine departments, which were subdivided into ninety-four provinces. Provinces, in turn, were divided into sections and sections into cantons. Following the French system of governance, each department is governed by a prefect, who is appointed by the president for a four-year term. Prefects hold overall authority in military, fiscal, and administrative matters, working in each substantive area under the supervision of the appropriate minister. Centralized control is ensured by the president's appointment of subprefects, officials vested with the administration of the provinces. Cantons are administered by corregidores (administrative officials named after the Spanish colonial officials), who are appointed by the prefect of their department. Serving under the corregidores are agentes (agents) who have quasi-judicial and quasi-executive functions.

The president's power of appointment created a system of patronage that reached down into the smallest administrative unit. Especially under military governments, the office of the prefect was key to obtaining regional loyalty. Under democratic rule, local government reflected the pattern of job struggle present in the national bureaucracy.

In some areas, ayllus prevailed as the principal local government. Years of military rule did not disrupt these communal structures. Each community selected jilacatas or mallcus to head the ayllus, a practice that reflected the prevalence of a political system outside the structures of the Bolivian state. As a result, the Bolivian campesino was marginal to the political process.

The principal local structure was the municipal government system. Historically, municipal governments in Bolivia proved susceptible to political instability; democratic procedures at the local level were suspended from the time of the Chaco War to 1985, and municipal elections were not held after 1948. During the military period, mayors of cities were appointed by the president, a practice that prevented the development of local and autonomous governmental structures. Instead, municipal governments throughout Bolivia became part of the patronage distributed among retainers by de facto rulers.

For the first time since 1948, municipal elections were held in 1985. They were also held in December 1987 and were scheduled again for December 1989. In large measure, the reemergence of municipal elections has been very healthy for the development and consolidation of democracy in Bolivia. However, many of the same problems that plagued democracy at the national level have emerged in municipal elections.

Municipal governments are bound by the terms of the Constitution and the Organic Law of Municipalities, a 125-article law approved in January 1985. Theoretically, the municipal governments are autonomous. Autonomy refers primarily to the direct and free election of municipal authorities, the power to extract and invest resources, and the power to implement plans and projects.

Four types of municipal government exist in Bolivia. In the capitals of the departments, municipal governments function under the direction of an alcalde (mayor), who should be subject to a municipal council, which consists of twelve members. The capitals of the provinces also function under the direction of a mayor, as well as a six-member municipal junta, or board. Provincial sections are governed by a four-member municipal junta and a mayor. In the cantons, municipal governments function under the direction of municipal agents.

Municipal governments have executive, judicial, comptroller, and legislative functions that reside mainly in the municipal council. Theoretically, the council governs at the local level, and the mayor is subordinate to its mandates. Mayors are elected by the council and are accountable to its members, who may impeach them. But the mayor is a local executive who commands a great deal of influence and can direct the activities of the council.

Mayors and council members are elected in each department and province for two-year terms. To become a council member or mayor, a person must be a citizen in possession of all rights, be twenty-one years of age (or eighteen if married), have run on a party slate, and be a resident of the district that the candidate seeks to represent. Members of the clergy, state employees, and active-duty military service personnel may not run for office.

Because councils are elected on the basis of proportional representation, minority parties have a significant degree of influence. Specifically, if a candidate for mayor does not receive a majority of the vote, the councils must elect the next mayor from the top three contenders. The experience of the December 1987 elections in the La Paz mayoral race revealed that standoffs in the councils could cause a mayoral election to be held hostage to the whims of individual council members. Several proposals for reforming the electoral laws affecting municipal government have been debated in Congress; however, it appeared unlikely in early 1989 that they would be approved in the near future.

Data as of December 1989

Last Updated: December 1989

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bolivia was first published in 1989. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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