Origins and Evolution of the Portuguese Administrative System in Comparative Perspective

Luís Silveira (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)

1. Introduction

Recently there was a strong debate in Portugal over the creation of administrative regions. People applied frequently to foreign examples without taking into account the different historic traditions. In this paper I will examine the origins and evolution of Portuguese contemporary administrative system and I will try to single out the specific characteristics of Portuguese evolution comparing it with Spain and France two countries that have influenced Portuguese History. My purpose is to point out the basic characteristics of the territorial organisation across the centuries and the relations established between central and local powers.

2. Structural characteristics

Unlike Spain or France, Portuguese territory was settled very early and its frontiers have been maintained with remarkable stability since the 13th century. The areas quickly conquered from the Muslims were scarcely populated and didnít have any political identity. Moreover the crown had a relevant role organising these newly conquered spaces, donating lands to the nobles and to the church and creating municipalities.

Portugal has a clear regional diversity. Some of these human and natural contrasts are basic, structural and have a clear reflection in economy and society. In the Middle Ages the perception of that diversity was translated into vocabulary. In the 14th century those areas even corresponded to regional administrative units created by the crown. But two centuries later, the provinces, as they began to be called, lost their institutional role and merely corresponded to different areas to which Portuguese people ascribed different characteristics (Maria Alexandre Lousada - As Divisões Administrativas em Portugal, do Antigo Regime ao Liberalismo, Universidade de Leon, 1991 and Nuno Gonçalo Monteiro (coord.) - Os Poderes Locais no Antigo Regime, in César Oliveira (dir.) - História dos Municípios e do Poder Local, Lisboa, Círculo de Leitores, 1995, pp. 17-175).

In Portugal at the end of the 18th century there were no regional forms of government, as in France or Spain, no regional laws, no customs separating regions, nor different coins as was the case in Spain. In Portugal we canít even speak of strong regional identities. The concept of natural inner borders didnít exist and the provinces didnít have territorial unity (Ana Cristina Nogueira da Silva - O Modelo Espacial do Estado Moderno, Lisboa, Estampa, 1998 and Luís Nuno Espinha da Silveira - Território e Poder. Nas Origens do Estado Contemporâneo em Portugal, Cascais, Patrimónia, 1997).

On the other hand, from the 16th century onwards Portugal had a network of municipalities covering the whole of the kingdom and governed by a relatively uniform set of rules. This is a second major characteristic of the Portuguese institutional system that has no equivalent in Spain or in France, where a variety of forms of local government prevailed (Maria Alexandre Lousada - As Divisões Administrativas em Portugal; Nuno Gonçalo Monteiro - Os Poderes Locais no Antigo Regime; Concepción de Castro - La Revolución Liberal y los Municipios Españoles (1812-1868), Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1979 and Roland Mousnier - Les Institutions de la France sous la Monarchie Absolue, Paris PUF, 1974).

3.The origins of the contemporary system. Territorial reforms

The above mentioned differences are crucial to understand the way in which the revolutions of end of the 18th and of the beginning 19th century approached the problem of territorial reform in each country (Luís Nuno Espinha da Silveira - Território e Poder).

In fact, the Portuguese liberal revolution didnít have to fight against the vitality of the provinces, as in France, or of the provinces and kingdoms, as in Spain. The creation of the French départements was an instrument used by the revolutionary power to build the nation and to dissolve the identity of former provinces. The same is true about Spain, but the provincial map of 1833 made some concessions to traditional boundaries (Marie-Vic Ozouf-Marignier - De LíUniversalisme Constituant aux Intérêts Locaux: Le Débat sur la Formation des Départements en France (1789-1790), in Annales, Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, nļ 6, 1986, pp. 1193-1213; Luis González Antón - El Territorio y Su Ordenación Politico-Administrativa, in Miguel Artola (dir.) - Enciclopedia de Historia de España, tomo II, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1988, pp. 11-92; Juan Pablo Fusi - La Organización Territorial del Estado in idem (ed.) - España. Autonomías, Tomo V, Madrid, Espasa-Calpe, 1989, pp. 13-40; Antonio T. Reguera Rodríguez - Geografía de Estado, León, Universidad de León, 1998).

In Portugal some of the liberal politicians even conceived an administrative system where the provinces were the top level, maintaining their former names, but with different frontiers. And if it is true that the provinces were excluded from the final solution, nevertheless for some time during the first half of the 19th century they became the electoral constituencies used to elect national representatives. A regime whose purpose would be the dissolution of regional identities would not give them such a important function.

The debate over the provinces arose only from the fear of an excessive concentration of power into the hands of governmental officers (prefeitos) placed at the head of them. The adoption of the 17 districts (1835) instead of 8 the provinces was an attempt to dissolve such power. The districts were a creation of the liberal revolution, with no historical predecessor. Like the French départements or the Spanish provinces, they were designed as a rational framework for the development of the State.

The new Portuguese regime didnít have to create a municipal network covering the whole country. In Spain such a need lead to the multiplication of the municipalities and explains their tiny dimension. In Portugal, were such a network already existed, the revolution in 1836 suppressed more than a half of the municipalities, making them grow in population and size. The existence since the Middle Ages of a large number of small municipalities with no financial resources and without people qualified to take part in municipal councils explains the evolution described. In any case, ever since the liberal revolution, Portuguese and Spanish municipalities have differed remarkably in terms of their respective size and population (Luís Nuno Espinha da Silveira - Território e Poder and Concepción de Castro - La Revolución Liberal y los Municipios Españoles, pp. 61-62).

Finally, the growth of municipalities explains the integration of the parishes into civil administration between 1835 and 1840 and, definitely, after 1878.

4. The origins of the contemporary system. The institutions

From an institutional point of view we may say that the contemporary administrative system in Portugal was inspired by the French model and influenced by Spanish experience. But it is important to bear in mind some peculiarities regarding municipalities. Since 1832 a distinction has been made between State and municipal levels of administration. Each one has had its own officers with different forms of legitimation. In the case of national representatives, they were appointed by the central government while local officials were elected by citizens. Ever since the liberal revolution of the 1830s, the mayor has only represented local interests and with the exception of Salazarís dictatorship, was never appointed by the central government. This is a very different experience from the French or the Spanish ones (Christophe Charle - Légitimités en Péril. Éléments pour une Histoire Comparé des Élites et de líÉtat en France et en Europe Occidentale (XIXe-XXe Siècles), in Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 116, 1997, pp. 39-52; Roger Dupuy (dir.) - Pouvoir Local et Révolution 1780-1850. La Frontière Intérieure, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1995; Concepción de Castro - La Revolución Liberal y los Municipios Españoles).

5. Further evolution

Thus the basic characteristics of the contemporary administrative map were defined in 1835-1836. The districts, except for the formation of a new one (Setúbal in 1926), have suffered minor boundary changes. Following their radical reduction in number in 1836 (from 816 to 351), the municipalities were further reduced to 256 in 1855, thus following the trend towards their increase in size and population. This evolution explains the much larger size of present Portuguese municipalities when compared to their EU counterparts. Finally, the parishes (freguesias) are the most stable element.

The main institutions of the system were settled during the period 1832-1835. During the Constitutional Monarchy (1835-1910) the main changes affected the relations between central and local government. The law of 1832, published during the civil war, broke the historic autonomy of the municipalities. It provoked an extensive protest and in 1835, municipalities were able to recover their traditional autonomy, though this was limited by various forms of tutelage exercised by the district institutions. From 1835 onwards the system balanced between the autonomy of local powers and the reinforcement of the influence of central government. But it has to be said that for many years the latter had serious difficulties imposing its power over the municipalities, especially since the State administration was affected by structural inefficiencies (Luís Nuno Espinha da Silveira - Estado Liberal, Centralismo e Atonia da Vida Local, in Actas dos IV Cursos Internacionais de Verão de Cascais, vol. 2, Cascais, CMC, 1998, pp. 127-145; idem - A Administração do Estado em Portugal no Século XIX, in Los 98 Ibéricos y el Mar, tomo III, El Estado y la Política, Madrid, Sociedad Estatal Lisboa 98, 1998, pp. 317-333).

The republican regime (1910-1926) didnít bring significant modifications. Continuity and moderate decentralisation are the words that best describe this period (João B. Serra - Os Poderes Locais: Administração e Política no 1ļ Quartel do Século XX, in César Oliveira (dir.) - História dos Municípios e do Poder Local, pp. 264-280).

For its part, the Estado Novo (1926-1974) represented a clear break with the past. First of all, there was an attempt to replace the districts with the provinces. This wasnít an outburst of an ancient provincialism that had been repressed. As we have seen, it simply never existed. The 11 provinces of the map published in 1940 were very different from the ones the Portuguese referred to up until the end of the 18th century. They were also quite different from the provinces that served as electoral constituencies during the first half of the following century. In any case, this attempt was unsuccessful, and in 1959 the provinces were extinguished and the districts reinstalled. The second innovation concerning territorial reforms was the creation in 1969 of the planning regions (regiões de planeamento) (José António Santos - Regionalização. Processo Histórico, Lisboa, Livros Horizonte, 1985).

At the institutional level, several other changes were also important. The local government institutions became part of the corporative system (sistema corporativo) and except for the parish councils (juntas de freguesia), all the other governmental bodies ceased to be elected by citizens. The mayor became appointed by the central government and thus local autonomy was completely undermined (César Oliveira - O Corporativismo do Estado Novo e os Municípios, in idem - História dos Municípios e do Poder Local, pp. 303-325).

6. Conclusion

If we forget the details, the history of the two last centuries shows the importance of the modifications introduced by the liberal revolution in the administrative system. But beyond these changes, the basic structural characteristics of Portuguese public administration were maintained: the absence of regional governments, role that the districts, except for some short periods, didnít perform, and despite its weaknesses, the persistence of municipal governments that were representative of local life.

What happened after the democratic revolution at the municipal level was the reawakening of a long tradition.

Present social movements seeking the restoration of certain municipalities extinguished more than a hundred years ago are another sign of the historic importance of these institutions. Itís impressive to see the relatively crowded demonstrations and the emotion in the faces of people chanting in favour of a restoration of their communityís status as a municipality. It suggests that many of these municipalities were real local communities in the past and might be again.


© Luís Silveira (May 2000)

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