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Federalism is a mixed or compound mode of government that combines a general government (the central or "federal" government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial, or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system, dividing the powers between the two. Federalism in the modern era was first adopted in the unions of states during the Old Swiss Confederacy.[1]

Federalism differs from confederalism, in which the general level of government is subordinate to the regional level, and from devolution within a unitary state, in which the regional level of government is subordinate to the general level.[2] It represents the central form in the pathway of regional integration or separation, bounded on the less integrated side by confederalism and on the more integrated side by devolution within a unitary state.[3][4]

Examples of a federation or federal province or state include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Mexico, Micronesia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Switzerland, UAE, and United States. Some characterize the European Union as the pioneering example of federalism in a multi-state setting, in a concept termed the "federal union of states".[5]


The pathway of regional integration or separation
The pathway of regional integration or separation


The terms "federalism" and "confederalism" share a root in the Latin word foedus, meaning "treaty, pact or covenant". Their common early meaning until the late eighteenth century was a simple league or inter-governmental relationship among sovereign states based on a treaty. They were therefore initially synonyms. It was in this sense that James Madison in Federalist No.39 had referred to the new US Constitution as "neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both" (i.e. as constituting neither a single large unitary state nor a league/confederation among several small states, but a hybrid of the two).[6] In the course of the nineteenth century United States, the meaning of federalism would come to shift, strengthening to refer uniquely to the novel compound political form established at the Philadelphia Convention, while the meaning of confederalism would remain at a league of states.[7]


In the narrow sense, federalism refers to the mode in which the body politic of a state is organized internally, and this is the meaning most often used in modern times. Political scientists, however, use it in a much broader sense, referring instead to a "multi-layer or pluralistic concept of social and political life."[8]

The first forms of federalism took place in ancient times, in the form of alliances between states. Some examples from the seventh to second century B.C. were the Archaic League, the Aetolic League, the Peloponnesian League, and the Delian League. An early progenitor of federalism was the Achaean League in Hellenistic Greece. Unlike the Greek city states of Classical Greece, each of which insisted on keeping its complete independence, changing conditions in the Hellenistic period drove many city states to band together even at the cost of losing part of their sovereignty. Subsequent unions of states included the first and second Swiss Confederations (1291–1798 and 1815–48), the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1579–1795), the German Bund (1815–66), the first American union known as the Confederation of the United States of America (1781–89), and second American union formed as the United States of America (1789–1865).[9]

Political theory

Modern federalism is a political system based upon democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and provincial/state governments. The term federalist describes several political beliefs around the world depending on context. Since the term federalization also describes distinctive political processes, its use as well depends on the context.[10]

In political theory, two main types of federalization are recognized:

Reasons for adoption

According to Daniel Ziblatt, there are four competing theoretical explanations in the academic literature for the adoption of federal systems:

  1. Ideational theories, which hold that a greater ideological commitment to decentralist ideas in society makes federalism more likely to be adopted.
  2. Cultural-historical theories, which hold that federal institutions are more likely to be adopted in societies with culturally or ethnically fragmented populations.
  3. "Social contract" theories, which hold that federalism emerges as a bargain between a center and a periphery where the center is not powerful enough to dominate the periphery and the periphery is not powerful enough to secede from the center.
  4. "Infrastructural power" theories, which hold that federalism is likely to emerge when the subunits of a potential federation already have highly developed infrastructures (e.g. they are already constitutional, parliamentary, and administratively modernized states).[14]

Immanuel Kant noted that "the problem of setting up a state can be solved even by a nation of devils" so long as they possess an appropriate constitution which pits opposing factions against each other with a system of checks and balances. In particular individual states required a federation as a safeguard against the possibility of war.[15]

Proponents for federal systems have historically argued that the power-sharing inherent in federal systems reduces both domestic security threats and foreign threats. Federalism allows states to be large and diverse, mitigating the risk of a tyrannical government through centralization of powers.[16][17]


Main article: List of federal countries

Many countries have implemented federal systems of government with varying degree of central and regional sovereignty. The federal government of these countries can be divided into minimalistic federations, consisting of only two sub-federal units or multi-regional, those that consist of three to dozens of regional governments. They can also be grouped based on their body polity type, such as emirate, provincial, republican or state federal systems. Another way to study federated countries is by categorizing them into those whose entire territory is federated as opposed to only part of its territory comprising the federal portion of the country. Some federal systems are national systems while others, like the European Union are supra national.

In general, two extremes of federalism can be distinguished: at one extreme, the strong federal state is almost completely unitary, with few powers reserved for local governments; while at the other extreme, the national government may be a federal state in name only, being a confederation in actuality. Federalism may encompass as few as two or three internal divisions, as is the case in Belgium or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The governments of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, and Mexico, among others, are also organized along federalist principles.

In Canada, federalism typically implies opposition to sovereigntist movements (most commonly Quebec separatism).[18] In 1999, the Government of Canada established the Forum of Federations as an international network for exchange of best practices among federal and federalizing countries. Headquartered in Ottawa, the Forum of Federations partner governments include Australia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Switzerland.

Europe vs. the United States

Main articles: Federal Europe and Federalism in the United States

In Europe, "federalist" is sometimes used to describe those who favor a common federal government, with distributed power at regional, national and supranational levels. Most European federalists want this development to continue within the European Union.[19] Although there are medieval and early modern examples of European states which used confederal and federal systems, contemporary European federalism originated in post-war Europe; one of the more important initiatives was Winston Churchill's speech in Zürich in 1946.[20]

In the United States, federalism originally referred to belief in a stronger central government. When the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, the Federalist Party supported a stronger central government, while "Anti-Federalists" wanted a weaker central government. This is very different from the modern usage of "federalism" in Europe and the United States. The distinction stems from the fact that "federalism" is situated in the middle of the political spectrum between a confederacy and a unitary state. The U.S. Constitution was written as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation, under which the United States was a loose confederation with a weak central government.

In contrast, Europe has a greater history of unitary states than North America, thus European "federalism" argues for a weaker central government, relative to a unitary state. The modern American usage of the word is much closer to the European sense. As the power of the U.S. federal government has increased, some people[who?] have perceived a much more unitary state than they believe the Founding Fathers intended. Most people politically advocating "federalism" in the United States argue in favor of limiting the powers of the federal government, especially the judiciary (see Federalist Society, New Federalism).

The contemporary concept of federalism came about with the creation of an entirely new system of government that provided for democratic representation at two governing levels simultaneously, which was implemented in the US Constitution.[21][22] In the United States implementation of federalism, a bicameral general government, consisting of a chamber of popular representation proportional to population (the House of Representatives), and a chamber of equal State-based representation consisting of two delegates per State (the Senate), was overlaid upon the pre-existing regional governments of the thirteen independent States. With each level of government allocated a defined sphere of powers, under a written constitution and the rule of law (that is, subject to the independent third-party arbitration of a supreme court in competence disputes), the two levels were thus brought into a coordinate relationship[further explanation needed] for the first time.

In 1946, Kenneth Wheare observed that the two levels of government in the US were "co-equally supreme".[23][full citation needed] In this, he echoed the perspective of American founding father James Madison who saw the several States as forming "distinct and independent portions of the supremacy"[24] in relation to the general government.

Constitutional structure

Division of powers

Not to be confused with separation of powers.

In a federation, the division of power between federal and regional governments is usually outlined in the constitution. Almost every country allows some degree of regional self-government, but in federations the right to self-government of the component states is constitutionally entrenched. Component states often also possess their own constitutions which they may amend as they see fit, although in the event of conflict the federal constitution usually takes precedence.

In almost all federations the central government enjoys the powers of foreign policy and national defense as exclusive federal powers. Were this not the case a federation would not be a single sovereign state, per the UN definition. Notably, the states of Germany retain the right to act on their own behalf at an international level, a condition originally granted in exchange for the Kingdom of Bavaria's agreement to join the German Empire in 1871. Beyond this the precise division of power from one nation to another. The constitutions of Germany and the United States provide that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are retained by the states. The Constitution of some countries like Canada and India, state that powers not explicitly granted to the provincial governments are retained by the federal government. Much like the US system, the Australian Constitution allocates to the Federal government (the Commonwealth of Australia) the power to make laws about certain specified matters which were considered too difficult for the States to manage, so that the States retain all other areas of responsibility. Under the division of powers of the European Union in the Lisbon Treaty, powers which are not either exclusively of Union competence or shared between the Union and the Member States as concurrent powers are retained by the constituent States.

Satiric depiction of late 19th-century political tensions in Spain
Satiric depiction of late 19th-century political tensions in Spain

Where every component state of a federation possesses the same powers, we are said to find 'symmetric federalism'. Asymmetric federalism exists where states are granted different powers, or some possess greater autonomy than others do. This is often done in recognition of the existence of a distinct culture in a particular region or regions. In Spain, the Basques and Catalans, as well as the Galicians, spearheaded a historic movement to have their national specificity recognized, crystallizing in the "historical communities" such as Navarre, Galicia, Catalonia, and the Basque Country. They have more powers than the later expanded arrangement for other Spanish regions, or the Spain of the autonomous communities (called also the "coffee for everyone" arrangement), partly to deal with their separate identity and to appease peripheral nationalist leanings, partly out of respect to specific rights they had held earlier in history. However, strictly speaking Spain is not a federation, but a system of asymmetric devolved government within a unitary state.

It is common that during the historical evolution of a federation there is a gradual movement of power from the component states to the centre, as the federal government acquires additional powers, sometimes to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The acquisition of new powers by a federal government may occur through formal constitutional amendment or simply through a broadening of the interpretation of a government's existing constitutional powers given by the courts.

Usually, a federation is formed at two levels: the central government and the regions (states, provinces, territories), and little to nothing is said about second or third level administrative political entities. Brazil is an exception, because the 1988 Constitution included the municipalities as autonomous political entities making the federation tripartite, encompassing the Union, the States, and the municipalities. Each state is divided into municipalities (municípios) with their own legislative council (câmara de vereadores) and a mayor (prefeito), which are partly autonomous from both Federal and State Government. Each municipality has a "little constitution", called "organic law" (lei orgânica). Mexico is an intermediate case, in that municipalities are granted full-autonomy by the federal constitution and their existence as autonomous entities (municipio libre, "free municipality") is established by the federal government and cannot be revoked by the states' constitutions. Moreover, the federal constitution determines which powers and competencies belong exclusively to the municipalities and not to the constituent states. However, municipalities do not have an elected legislative assembly.

Federations often employ the paradox of being a union of states, while still being states (or having aspects of statehood) in themselves. For example, James Madison (author of the US Constitution) wrote in Federalist Paper No. 39 that the US Constitution "is in strictness neither a national nor a federal constitution; but a composition of both. In its foundation, it is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of the Government are drawn, it is partly federal, and partly national..." This stems from the fact that states in the US maintain all sovereignty that they do not yield to the federation by their own consent. This was reaffirmed by the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reserves all powers and rights that are not delegated to the Federal Government as left to the States and to the people.


The structures of most federal governments incorporate mechanisms to protect the rights of component states. One method, known as 'intrastate federalism', is to directly represent the governments of component states in federal political institutions. Where a federation has a bicameral legislature the upper house is often used to represent the component states while the lower house represents the people of the nation as a whole. A federal upper house may be based on a special scheme of apportionment, as is the case in the senates of the United States and Australia, where each state is represented by an equal number of senators irrespective of the size of its population.

Alternatively, or in addition to this practice, the members of an upper house may be indirectly elected by the government or legislature of the component states, as occurred in the United States prior to 1913, or be actual members or delegates of the state governments, as, for example, is the case in the German Bundesrat and in the Council of the European Union. The lower house of a federal legislature is usually directly elected, with apportionment in proportion to population, although states may sometimes still be guaranteed a certain minimum number of seats.

Intergovernmental relations

In Canada, the provincial governments represent regional interests and negotiate directly with the central government. A First Ministers conference of the prime minister and the provincial premiers is the de facto highest political forum in the land, although it is not mentioned in the constitution.

Constitutional change

Federations often have special procedures for amendment of the federal constitution. As well as reflecting the federal structure of the state this may guarantee that the self-governing status of the component states cannot be abolished without their consent. An amendment to the constitution of the United States must be ratified by three-quarters of either the state legislatures, or of constitutional conventions specially elected in each of the states, before it can come into effect. In referendums to amend the constitutions of Australia and Switzerland it is required that a proposal be endorsed not just by an overall majority of the electorate in the nation as a whole, but also by separate majorities in each of a majority of the states or cantons. In Australia, this latter requirement is known as a double majority.

Some federal constitutions also provide that certain constitutional amendments cannot occur without the unanimous consent of all states or of a particular state. The US constitution provides that no state may be deprived of equal representation in the senate without its consent. In Australia, if a proposed amendment will specifically impact one or more states, then it must be endorsed in the referendum held in each of those states. Any amendment to the Canadian constitution that would modify the role of the monarchy would require unanimous consent of the provinces. The German Basic Law provides that no amendment is admissible at all that would abolish the federal system.

Other technical terms

In relation to conflict

It has been argued that federalism and other forms of territorial autonomy are a useful way to structure political systems in order to prevent violence among different groups within countries because it allows certain groups to legislate at the subnational level.[26] Some scholars have suggested, however, that federalism can divide countries and result in state collapse because it creates proto-states.[27] Still others have shown that federalism is only divisive when it lacks mechanisms that encourage political parties to compete across regional boundaries.[28]

Federalism is sometimes viewed in the context of international negotiation as "the best system for integrating diverse nations, ethnic groups, or combatant parties, all of whom may have cause to fear control by an overly powerful center."[29] However, those skeptical of federal prescriptions sometimes believe that increased regional autonomy can lead to secession or dissolution of the nation.[29] In Syria, for example, federalization proposals have failed in part because "Syrians fear that these borders could turn out to be the same as the ones that the fighting parties have currently carved out."[29]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Forsyth 1981, p. 18.
  2. ^ Wheare 1946, pp. 31–22.
  3. ^ See diagram below.
  4. ^ Diamond, Martin (1961) "The Federalist's View of Federalism", in Benson, George (ed.) Essays in Federalism, Institute for Studies in Federalism, Claremont, p. 22. Downs, William (2011) "Comparative Federalism, Confederalism, Unitary Systems", in Ishiyama, John and Breuning, Marijke (eds) Twenty-first Century Political Science: A Reference Handbook, Sage, Los Angeles, Vol. I, pp. 168–169. Hueglin, Thomas and Fenna, Alan (2006) Comparative Federalism: A Systematic Inquiry, Broadview, Peterborough, p. 31.
  5. ^ See Law, John (2013), p. 104. http://www.on-federalism.eu/attachments/169_download.pdf Archived 2015-07-15 at the Wayback Machine
    This author identifies two distinct federal forms, where before only one was known, based upon whether sovereignty (conceived in its core meaning of ultimate authority) resides in the whole (in one people) or in the parts (in many peoples). This is determined by the absence or presence of a unilateral right of secession for the parts. The structures are termed, respectively, the federal state (or federation) and the federal union of states (or federal union).
  6. ^ Madison, James, Hamilton, Alexander and Jay, John (1987) The Federalist Papers, Penguin, Harmondsworth, p. 259.
  7. ^ Law, John (2012) "Sense on Federalism", in Political Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 3, p. 544.
  8. ^ Bulmer, Elliot. "Federalism" (PDF). International IDEA Constitution-Building Primer 12: 12. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2021-03-28.
  9. ^ Forsyth 1981, pp. 18, 25, 30, 43, 53, 60.
  10. ^ Broschek 2016, p. 23–50.
  11. ^ a b Gerven 2005, p. 35, 392.
  12. ^ Broschek 2016, pp. 27–28, 39.
  13. ^ Broschek 2016, pp. 27–28, 39–41, 44.
  14. ^ Ziblatt, Daniel (2008). Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691136493.
  15. ^ Reiss, H.S. (2013). Kant: Political Writings. ISBN 9781107268364.
  16. ^ Deudney, Daniel H. (2007). Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-1-4008-3727-4.
  17. ^ Deudney, Daniel (2004). "Publius Before Kant: Federal-Republican Security and Democratic Peace". European Journal of International Relations. 10 (3): 315–356. doi:10.1177/1354066104045540. ISSN 1354-0661. S2CID 143608840.
  18. ^ "CBC on Federalism and Separatism".
  19. ^ "70_Years_of_Campaigns_for_a_United_and_Federal_Europe" (PDF). www.federalists.eu. Union of European Federalists. 2016. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-09-28.
  20. ^ "The Churchill Society London. Churchill's Speeches". www.churchill-society-london.org.uk.
  21. ^ Law, John (2012) "Sense on Federalism", in Political Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 3, pp. 543–544.
  22. ^ Wheare 1946, p. 11.
  23. ^ Wheare 1946, pp. 10–15.
  24. ^ Madison, James, Hamilton, Alexander and Jay, John (1987) The Federalist Papers, Penguin, Harmondsworth, p. 258.
  25. ^ Koonz, Claudia (2003). The Nazi Conscience. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-674-01172-4.
  26. ^ Lijphart, Arend (1977). Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  27. ^ Hale, Henry E. (2004). "Divided We Stand: Institutional Sources of Ethnofederal State Survival and Collapse". World Politics. 56 (2): 165–193. doi:10.1353/wp.2004.0011. ISSN 1086-3338. S2CID 155052031.
  28. ^ Dawn Brancati. 2009. Peace by Design: Managing Intrastate Conflict through Decentralization. Oxford: Oxford UP.
  29. ^ a b c Michael Meyer-Resende, Why Talk of Federalism Won't Help Peace in Syria, Foreign Policy (March 18, 2017).