Colombias 1991 constitution, which replaced a charter dating from 1886, provides for a highly centralized republican form of government.
National executive power in Colombia is vested in a president who is elected by direct popular vote to a single four-year term. Suffrage is universal for all citizens 18 years of age or older. The president appoints a cabinet, subject to congressional approval. Under the 1991 constitution, the departmental governors are directly elected.
Legislative power in Colombia is vested in a bicameral Congress composed of a House of Representatives of 163 members and a Senate of 102 members. Members are elected to four-year terms. The 1991 constitution provides penalties for absenteeism and bars members of Congress from simultaneously holding any other public office.
The 1991 constitution provides for three high courts: the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, and the State Council. Its 24 justices are elected for life, half by the Senate and half by the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court is the highest court on all matters of criminal law. The Constitutional Court, elected by the Senate to eight-year terms, rules on the constitutionality of legislation and also hears all cases concerning the constitution. The State Council is the highest court for cases concerning the administration of the government. The judicial system also includes superior and lower district courts and provincial and municipal judges. The 1991 constitution bans extradition and establishes an independent system of prosecution. Capital punishment is outlawed.
Colombia has a relatively free and open political system in which a number of parties participate. The two major parties have traditionally been the Conservative Party (now known as the Colombian Social Conservative Party), favoring strong central government and close relations with the Roman Catholic church, and the Liberal Party, favoring stronger local governments and separation of church and state. Between 1958 and 1974 the Liberals and Conservatives were the only legal political parties in Colombia, owing to a 1957 constitutional amendment intended to defuse the explosive antagonisms between them. Under this arrangement, called the National Front, each party held exactly half the number of seats in each legislative house and in the cabinet and other agencies, and the presidency alternated between leaders of the parties. During the 1980s the Liberals held majorities in both houses of Congress. In the 1990 presidential election, the former guerrilla group M-19 emerged as the third leading political party. In the 1994 elections the Liberal Party retained its majority in both houses. The M-19 group lost most of the seats it had won in 1990.
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