The Dangers of Ethnic Federalism


19 May 2008: The Dangers of Ethnic Federalism


Version Française


Federalism implies a political system where government activities are constitutionally divided between a federal government and regional governments in such a way that each government has the final decision-making in its respective areas of competence.

Bookmark with:

Digg! Digg It!


The idea is that the two types of government – the federal and regional governments – are organized more or less in the same way, with a written constitution specifying the competence of each of the political entities.


Federalism could therefore imply the option of a purely administrative division or an ethnic division necessitated by the multi-ethnic nature of the particular state.


The historic failure of states founded upon the principle of ethnic federalism is clearly the reason why there is a general rejection of the ethnic option.


Despite the numerous dangers, it remains an innovative approach, even perhaps the best tool to diffuse or prevent conflict between the different ethnic groups.


Federalism, essentially a defense mechanism against a central government that is too powerful and oppressive, is based on common interests. They imply shared values, mutual loyalty, understanding and a shared trust between the different ethnic groups in order to prevent any absolute domination of one group over another.


Implementing a federal system is a long and slow process – a political learning curve to assure that the system works properly. The success of the system depends on the legitimacy of the central government, a culture of dialogue, the distribution of economic resources in a more or less equitable way, an economic situation favorable to political engineering and the possibility for each region, with its own historical past, to build its own system according to its own realities on the ground. There is thus no ideal form of a federal system applicable to all states. However, the central or federal government should never centralize its political powers to the detriment of the regional government that should do more to implement the exclusive political powers defined by the central government. The federal government should also refrain from using subsidies in such a way that it creates dependence detrimental to the success of the system.
Despite these reservations, the federal system does have enormous potential to create an institutional and political dispensation in which citizens can fully participate and at the same time identify with the State as well as with their personal ethnic identity. It ensures the respect for diversity and enables different ethnic groups to co-exist within multi-ethnic States in a climate of stability and mutual respect.


Federalism dilutes conflict by transferring them to the smaller entities and local authorities. It limits dissention to within one ethnic group, in the case of different factions competing for the control of the government of the different entities. Finally it stimulates creative energy within the local groups who are called upon to run their own education systems, their social services and regional bureaucracies.


It is important to note that federalism can have negative consequences. The complexity of the structures can make the decision-making process slow and less efficient. The federal system can also aggravate the ethnic divisions and on a longer term upset the fragile balance between the various ethnic groups. The system can thus accentuate ethnic conflict that might even lead to secession by one or more entities and the break-up of the federal state. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, resulting in 15 new states. The same year, federalism broke up in a violent way in Yugoslavia after an extremely bloody civil war. A close examination of the cases of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia where the various entities theoretically have the right to secede highlights the central problem of federalism.


How can one avoid the negative effects of federalism and still give each ethnic group a large margin of participation in the political decision-making process, as well as an autonomy which is more real that symbolic and which is successful to significantly minimize inter-ethnic conflicts?


Ronald Watts, a well-known expert on federalism provides an answer to this question by enumerating four possible variables of a successful federal system.


Firstly, even if federalism is certainly a way to ensure unity within diversity, it is in no way the only solution to the political problems of a state where the conditions for a federal system are not met. Secondly, taking into account the inevitable co-dependence between the federal government and the regional governments, it should not limit the autonomy and initiative of the various governments.


Thirdly, the degree of success of a federal system does not only depend on the constitutional structure, but most importantly on the adherence by all the citizens of the state to the fundamental principles of federalism: the necessity to appreciate diversity and promote mutual respect and above all a sense of belonging to a community of interests with set political rules and within a consensus freely accepted, excluding ethnic hegemonies.


In the absence of all these procedures and conditions, the federal constitution becomes a mere façade that masks authoritarianism, centralization and the absence of a spirit of tolerance and compromise.


Fourthly, the capacity of the federal system to accommodate different political realities does not only depend on adopting a federal system, but the adequate expression of the needs of the citizens by setting up state institutions which are sustainable, and transparent, both on a federal and regional level. Thus the party in power, whichever it might be, is subject to institutional mechanisms and will be forced to tolerate rival political parties which may one day replace it in a legal fashion.


Berouk Mesfin, senior researcher, Direct Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa


feature-5icon-printerlogo-chlogo-frPSC REPORT