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Federalism Over the Next 20 Years

Fall 2011 One Pager

Federalism Over the Next 20 Years

FederalismThe future may not always be democratic, but where and when countries do democratize, the pressures for federalization may prove irresistible

The Arab Spring is yet another reminder of how many publics are pushing for democracy – even in countries long considered by many to be ‘not ready’ for it. But as many countries – especially in Asia and Africa – democratize, it will become clear that they do not fit with the Wilsonian concept of ‘one nation-one state.’ There will inevitably be recourse to federal models as a way to address internal conflicts and territorial cleavages.

There has been a mushrooming of federal systems. While Australia, Canada, Switzerland and the US were the only functioning federal democracies in 1945, today some 25 to 30 countries, with 40 per cent of the world’s population, are federal.

Federalism is only real with some degree of political freedom and competition – some measure of democracy – ideally based in a strong system of constitutional law, with independent courts. Such ‘paper federations’ as the former USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia never passed this test. Argentina, Brazil and Mexico had federal forms when under dictators or one-party rule, but not federal politics.

The foreign policy community’s attention to federalism has been largely focussed on cases in which external powers have intervened in conflict-prone countries to promote or impose federalism as a way to hold the country together – often with limited success. The model imposed on Bosnia-Herzegovina is deeply dysfunctional. Attempts to find federal solutions for Cyprus and Sri Lanka have failed. The highly asymmetrical federation created for Sudan in 2005 ended in break-up (though, post-secession, the North and South both claim that they will be internally federal). Iraq muddles along with a half-baked federal model, accommodating the inevitability of Kurdish autonomy, but still not resolving critical issues.

The more promising new federal stories are in countries that have turned to federalism relatively free of outside influence. This was the case in India, whose unique form of federalism has proven remarkably resilient in coping democratically with the country’s vast complexity. Previously fictive federal structures have become real in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, and actually facilitated their transitions to democracy. With the return to civilian rule, Nigeria is now genuinely federal, and very devolved.

Many traditionally unitary regimes have also been federalizing – or devolving in a serious way – as they democratize. Spain is an outstanding case where, after Franco, it was clear that democracy would require significant autonomy for the ‘historic nationalities.’ The result has been a highly devolved – and surprisingly symmetrical – regime. In a great bargain, the ANC in South Africa accepted a form of federalism as the price of support for the constitution from the whites and coloureds, as well as the Inkatha Freedom Party. Ethiopia’s civil war was won by a coalition of regional groups that opted for a strong form of ‘ethnic federalism.’ Indonesia has devolved significantly, with a special deal for Aceh. In August of 2010, Kenya approved a new constitution that will create and empower regional governments. Peru, Columbia and Morocco are other examples of countries moving to devolve further. Nepal is committed to federalism as part of its peace agreement, but is struggling to find a consensus on its form. In Spain, South Africa and Indonesia, the word ‘federalism’ has been largely rejected, but the essence of constitutional devolution to elected governments has not.

Old federations had their origins in various units ‘coming together.’ The EU has been the biggest story of ‘coming together’ since WW2. It too has some federal features. Successful federations have not typically been founded in a climate of violence. While the US and Nigeria recovered from civil wars, a well-functioning federation normally requires most of its people to feel real attachment both to the country and to their region or ethnic group.

Both federal and centralized regimes have failed. Today, the international community tends to become involved when a regime is failing, often with a view to trying to prevent a breakup. While not a panacea, federalism certainly does offer approaches that may help manage serious conflicts. Success is most likely if the various groups themselves work their way to an accord, rather than being pushed into something by outside parties. What the international community can offer is expertise, incentives and dialogue to promote the process of finding a workable formula.

While it may be hard to envisage many countries becoming a successful federation, it is even harder to envisage a successful democracy without some elements of federalism. Many countries are often too large and diverse to be highly centralized. So if countries such as China, Iran, Burma or Congo do democratize, we can expect simultaneous pressure for devolution or federalization. The most immediate such developments may well be in North Africa and the Middle East. It will be a bumpy, twisting road, but the direction is beyond dispute.


George Anderson is President Emeritus of the Forum of Federations, and a former deputy minister in the Canadian government.


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