Federalism in the Twenty-First Century:
Trends and Prospects

Notes used in the Public Lecture

by George Anderson
President, Forum of Federations

Sponsored by the Centre for Policy Alternatives
Colombo, Sri Lanka,
Monday, 19 February, 2007



1. What is Federalism?

  • Two orders of government (central/regional) each with independent powers
  • Constitutionally created—not creature of other order (vs. unitary or confederal)
  • Arbitration mechanism for constitution, usually a court
  • Democratic: goes with divided power, rule of law
  • Special federal protections: upper house; amendment formula; court composition; language.

2. Variety of Federations: Societies

  • 25 in world and 40% of population
  • All democracies with very large populations or territories
  • Some small countries with great social diversity: language, ethnicity, religion, regions
  • High, middle and low income countries.

3. Variety of Federations: Institutions

  • Legislative-executive arrangements:
  • Parliamentary
  • Presidential   
  • Mixed
  • Upper houses:
  • directly- indirectly elected
  • powers          
  • Electoral and party systems
  • Protections of minority rights
  • Distribution of powers
  • Fiscal sharing.

4. Politics and Language

  • Not all 25 federations always meet all elements of definition
  • Experts sometimes disagree
  • In some countries ‘federal’ carries negative political baggage: South Africa, Spain, Indonesia—even India
  • Issue is not use of word ‘federal’, but value of ‘tool kit’ of federal techniques
  • Every country must find its own formula.

5. Classic Federations

  • United States (1780)
  • Switzerland (1848)
  • Canada (1867)
  • Australia (1901)
  • Germany (1871-1918) (1948)
  • Austria (1918-1933) (1945)
  • All are now well established and successful but three broke down at some point in their history.

6. Latin American Federations

  • Venezuela (1811)
  • Mexico (1824)
  • Argentina (1853)
  • Brazil (1891)
  • History of military rule and major constitutional rewrites
  • Transition to democracy in late twentieth century
  • All but Venezuela now quite stable democracies.

7. Post-Colonial Federations


  • India (1950)
  • Malaysia (1948 and 1963) (lost Singapore)
  • Nigeria (1954)
  • Pakistan (1956) (lost Bangladesh)


  • West Indies (1958)
  • Indochina (1945-7)
  • French West Africa and Mali (1959)
  • Indonesia (1945-9)
  • Uganda
  • Central African Federation

8. New Wave of Federalism

  • Post-Soviet federations
  • Federations emerging from unitary regimes
  • European Union
  • Post-conflict situations
  • Mixed picture regarding prospects.


9. Federalism and the ex- Soviet Bloc

  • Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were nominal, not real, federations.  Power was always centralized in the party and courts not independent.
  • They did not survive the transition to democracy
  • However, Russia, which was half the Soviet Union held together as a federation, though Putin has moved to centralize, still a federation.

10. New federations emerging peacefully from unitary systems


  • Belgium
  • Spain
  • South Africa
  • United Kingdom?


  • Philippines
  • Indonesia
  • Italy
  • Bolivia

11. The European Union

  • Unique regime
  • Federal: Parliament, Court
  • Confederal: Council of Ministers
  • Central motivation was to bring peace to Europe but now much broader
  • Started from different functional focus than most federations: economic, not defence and foreign policy

12. New federations emerging from post-conflict situations


  • Bosnia
  • Ethiopia
  • Iraq
  • Sudan
  • South Africa


  • Sri Lanka
  • Somalia
  • Congo
  • Cyprus
  • Nepal

13. Bosnia

  • Federal regime imposed by Dayton Accord
  • Very small country
  • Elaborate mechanisms for protecting three communities at centre: not functional

14. Ethiopia

  • Federal regime emerged from victorious revolution—liberation armies based in different regions
  • Highly diverse society, undeveloped politics
  • Significant push to develop regional structures and politics
  • Still one party in control at both levels, but party competition becoming more active

15. Iraq

  • Federalism only solution acceptable to Kurds
  • Highly decentralized design but not yet implemented.  Many unresolved issues
  • Oil dependent state
  • Emergence of sectarian politics
  • An asymmetric model?

16. Sudan

  • Federal solution central to Comprehensive Peace Agreement
  • Special features:
  • Government of national unity
  • Eventual referendum on southern independence
  • South Sudan as federation within federation
  • Oil revenue sharing
  • Transitional period before elections
  • Unresolved problems of Darfur and North-East.

17. South Africa

  • African National Congress traditionally opposed federalism
  • But agreed:
  • Inkatha
  • Europeans
  • Asians
  • Needed to create provinces
  • Successful transition to democracy

18. Innovations in New Federations

  • Territorial and cultural federalism: Belgian model
  • Asymmetry:
  • Spanish: separate treaties with autonomous communities
  • UK: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland
  • Sudan: federation within a federation
  • Constitution-making:
  • Reconciliation and constitution-making in South Africa
  • Federalism at the Centre
  • 50-50 Cabinet, ‘alarm bells’ in Belgium
  • Mixed Executive in Iraq

19. Conditions for Federal Success

  • Federal culture: can be very divided, but need some elements of shared identity and respect for difference, tolerance; cross-cutting cleavages
  • Federal politics: rule of law, leaders (Nehru, Mandela, Trudeau), political game (peaceful, democratic)
  • Federal techniques: fiscal federalism, ethnic and language laws, decentralization; consociationalism

20. Federalism and Democracy

  • Federalism is a democratic form of government, so the first pre-condition of federalism is a democratic environment.
  • If this exists, the question becomes what will better ‘fit’ or stabilize a particular democracy: a unitary or federal form.
  • Federalism is basic to the stability of many democracies. 

21. Federalism in 21st Century

  • Federalism will receive more attention in 21st century because of
-International pressures to keep countries united
-Democraticization in complex societies
-Push for local voice in established democracies
  • Will be especially important in Africa and Asia: could a democratic China not be federal?
  • However, federalism, like unitary regimes, cannot always succeed. Part of larger challenge of democracy