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Federations Magazine Article
Publication Year:
Special Section: Unity in Diversity

Cajoling and compromise
drive India’s multi-party
Indian federalism bristles with paradoxes
The special section of this issue of Federations magazine tackles
two classic themes of federal governance, diversity and intergovernmental
relations, and how they shape the internal
politics of several federal countries.
These eight articles address themes of central interest to
practitioners of federalism. They were chosen to also appeal to
the appetites of the less initiated.
The selection includes pieces on unity and diversity in
Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Switzerland, four countries who
value their respective forms of diversity and have found unique
ways of promoting it in order to strengthen the unity of their
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
Manufacturers of political party banners, flags and signs display their products before shipping them to campaign offices from their
workshop in Bangalore.
REUTERS/ Jagades h India
ndia is not a textbook federation. Under the
classic theory of federalism, it is not a federation at all.
The Constitution of India does not use the term federation;
rather, it describes India as “a union of states.” And
yet, the country’s Supreme Court has unequivocally
maintained in two landmark judgments, in 1977 and
1996, that “the Indian union is federal” and “it (federalism) is
the basic feature of the Constitution.” Described variously as a
“federation without federalism,” quasi-federal and “a union of
unequal states,” the federal system in India has often evoked
lively academic debate.
India has an evolving federalism. With the advent of coalition
governments in New Delhi, India has shed the
straightjacket of the unitary colonial regime it inherited and
operated under in the initial years of independence. Indian federalism
has moved beyond textbook formulations; it bristles
with many paradoxes.
The success of Indian democracy and federalism has many
roots. India is a state built on ancient civilizations but its democratic
institutions have adapted well to modern and
post-modern realities. The development of the Indian political
system during the six decades after independence has given it a
measure of strength and stability. Unlike most post-colonial
states, India’s basic constitutional and political framework
remains that which became operational soon after
Indian federalism is a judicious blend of rigidity and flexibility.
The basic structure of the Constitution cannot be easily
changed. Certain changes in the Constitution require a twothirds
majority in Parliament, besides being ratified by not less
than half of state legislatures. There are also cases, including the
formation of new states, which require approval of a simple
majority in Parliament. Thus, the Indian Constitution allows for
change and evolution through its amending formulas. By 2006,
it had been amended 96 times.
Independence and evolution
The existing federal system in India has deep historical roots.
The British Crown, the rulers of the princely states and the independence
movement leaders each saw federalism in a good
light for different reasons. To the British, the federal formula
was the best guarantee of their trading interests. The rulers of
Indian princely states – local hereditary rulers within British
colonial India – welcomed such a framework as they could
retain their autocratic powers. And freedom movement leaders
thought federalism offered the best possibility of an early realization
of their goal of political freedom and as a compromise
to prevent the partition of India along communal lines. For the
Muslim League, federation could only be considered a stepping-
stone toward a sovereign Pakistan.
India’s Constituent Assembly was ready to frame a federal
constitution when it first met in 1946 and early 1947. However,
the announcement of the Mountbatten Plan, outlining the partition
of India, changed the mood of the country in favour of a
strong central authority. Overnight, federalism became suspect
in the eyes of the constitution makers.
After the partition of India and independence in 1947 there
was sectarian violence of an unprecedented scale accompanied
by a huge exchange of populations between the two
countries. What loomed large at that critical moment for India
was not federalism, but national unity and integration. The constitution
makers did not abandon the federal idea as such, but
rather vested the central government with extraordinary powers.
Thus India became a union of states.
The Congress system
Ironically, independent India has always been a federation
despite the silence of the Constitution in this regard. During the
period of one-party domination by the Congress Party, which
Indians have named “the Congress system,” India remained
what former Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer calls
“unitary at the whim of the Union and federal at the pleasure of
[please turn to page 22]
Ash Narain Roy is the associate director of the Institute of Social
Sciences, New Delhi.
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
The common thread is that laws have been adopted to protect
certain rights of minorities.
Two of the four articles on intergovernmental relations
focus on how Spain and Italy continue gradually shifting
power to their constituent units, demonstrating how a certain
level of conflict between the central authority and the constituent
units is inevitable and no doubt necessary.
The other two pieces examine politics in India through the
prism of India’s fascinating multi-party system and the realignment
of power sharing within the country.
These topics, diversity and intergovernmental relations
form two of the four core themes of the Fourth International
Conference on Federalism in new Delhi from Nov. 5–7, the
other two being local governments and federal systems; and
fiscal federalism, the subject of a recent special section of
Federations Magazine.
This is the year of India’s Diamond Jubilee, 60 years of
independence. It is thus most fitting that the International
Conference, whose theme Unity in Diversity: Learning from
Each Other, be held in a country whose enduring unity has
been maintained through its considerable diversity. There is
much to learn from the Indian experience.
We trust these articles will inform and resonate both with
you our regular reader and you, the conference participant
who is reading us for the first time.
– Rod Macdonell, Senior Editor
by gurpret ma hajan
t was regional disparities, historic differences and
the enormous cultural diversity of India that led the
framers of its Constitution to adopt a federal form of
government. Still, they did include several centralizing
elements: the office of the centrally-appointed governor,
the all-India administrative services (the higher civil
service, which serves both the central government and the
states), very centralized revenues, and the power to declare an
internal emergency and dismiss an elected state government.
These mechanisms enabled the central government to exercise
its influence and control over the states.
After independence, those centralizing aspects of the federal
system had been reinforced by the dominance of one party,
the Congress Party, at both the central and
the regional levels. Because Congress effectively
controlled both levels, any differences
between states (regional governments) and
between the centre and the states could be
sorted out through intervention of the party
leadership. As the Congress Party became
more centralized in its own functioning and
organizational structure, the balance tilted
even more heavily in favour of the centre.
The political context changes
In the 1960s and after, changes in the political process provided
the impetus for restructuring the centre-state relationship. As
the Congress Party’s hegemony broke down, new regional parties
came to power, demanding more fiscal and administrative
autonomy within the federation. This process, sometimes
described as the shift from centralized federalism to co-operative
federalism, began in the mid-1970s. Since the 1990s it has
been further consolidated with coalition governments being
formed at the centre. The failure of any one party to gain majority
in the central Parliament, and the growing dependence of
national parties on support from regional parties to run the
government at the centre, has given more elbow room for the
federal units to bargain and influence important decisions at
the centre.
The space that the political process created for regional players
and states vis-à-vis the centre has over the years been
formalized through a series of institutional mechanisms. This
pursuit of institutional change and innovation accelerated in
1989 when the National Front coalition, with V. P. Singh as prime
minister, assumed office at the centre. The demand for restructuring
the centre-state relationship had been gaining
momentum since 1967 when the Congress Party lost elections
for the first time in nine states. A framework for restructuring
the centre-state relationship had been prepared beginning with
the Rajmamar Committee set up by the Dravida Munnetra
Khazagam party when they were the government of Tamil Nadu
state, the memorandum on centre-state relations submitted by
the Left Front Party in 1977, and the opposition
conclave in 1983 in Srinagar. The centre
responded by setting up the Sarkaria
Commission to look into the issue. In 1988,
the commission made 247 recommendations
in its report, 179 of which have since
been accepted, paving the way for greater
consultation and co-operation between the
centre and the state.
New institutional mechanisms set up
The Constitution of India, under Article 263, envisaged the creation
of institutional mechanisms for investigating, discussing,
and advising on specific issues of concern to the centre and the
states. One of the most important of these institutions, the
National Development Council (NDC ), was set up in 1952 with
the Prime Minister as chair and the chief ministers of all the
states as members. The NDC was supposed to strengthen and
mobilize efforts in support of the five-year plans. Its role was
subsequently expanded in 1967, when, following the recommendations
of the Administrative Reforms Commission, it
became a consultative body involved in the preparation of the
plans and conducting their mid-term reviews.
In 1990, there emerged another important institutional
mechanism – the Inter-State Council (ISC), with the prime minister
as chair, chief ministers of all the states, six ministers of
Restructuring the centrestate
relationship in India
Large web of consultative bodies have enhanced the federal structure
Gurpreet Mahajan is a professor at the Centre for Political Studies of
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
cabinet rank appointed by the PM as members, and another
four ministers of cabinet rank as permanent invitees. While the
NDC involved the states in determining planning priorities,
the ISC was expected to facilitate a more comprehensive dialogue.
In recent times, the ISC has prepared an action plan on
good governance and scrutinized the implementation of the
Sarkaria Commission’s recommendations on centre-state
Over the years, several other institutions have been set up to
enhance co-operation between the centre and the states.
While most of these are advisory bodies, in the changing political
scene they have been able to play a positive role. Zonal
Councils were established under the States Reorganization Act
of 1956. With the Home Minister as chair and the chief ministers
of states in the region as members, these councils meet to
resolve differences between the
states and with the centre and to
promote balanced socio-economic
development in the
region. There are now five such
councils and they offer concerned
states an opportunity to
deliberate on issues of shared
interest; last year, the focus was
on rural development, infrastructure,
tourism, mining, and
internal security.
Besides the Zonal Councils,
there are a number of inter-state
consultative bodies that review
policies on specific issues: e.g.,
the National Water Resource
Council, the Advisory Council
on Foodgrains Management and
Public Distribution and the
Mineral Advisory Board. In addition,
institutions have been set
up under Article 263 to provide
data for policies on specific
issues. There are at present separate
Central Councils of Health, Local Self Government, Family
Welfare, Transport Development, Sales Tax and Sales Excise
Duties, and Research in Traditional Medicine. Also, from time
to time, the government sets up a finance commission to recommend
the distribution of resources from the centre to the
states. There exists, as well, a provision for the creation of tribunals
to settle disputes between states on the sharing of river
Limits of the existing structure
This large web of consultative bodies has enabled states to initiate
dialogue with the centre and with each other, and has
helped minimize tensions and enhance the co-operative
dimension of the federal structure. While the contribution of
these institutions must not be underestimated, there are nevertheless
certain concerns that need to be addressed so that
the institutionalized interactions nurture a sense of partnership,
rather than paternalism, between the centre and the
Party leaders from national and state legislatures share levity
after smearing on coloured water during the Holi celebrations
in March. The chief minister designate of Uttarkhand state, B.C.
Khanduri, right, smiles as India’s opposition leader, L.K.
Advani, leads him forward.
First, no matter how well institutions are designed, their
effective functioning is dependent upon, and can be impeded
by, the larger political context in which they operate. For example,
the ISC was set up in 1990 when the Congress Party had
been voted out of power and first met in 1992. Then, after the
Congress Party was voted back in, no meetings were held for
the next six years – thus undermining the ISC.
Second, in the period of reform, new decision-making centres
emerged and diminished the role of some of the existing
consultative bodies. This is clearly the case of the NDC . Today,
the NDC ’s approval is required for finalizing the five-year plans,
but, effectively, the planning priorities are determined by the
Planning Commission, a body of the central government.
Third, while consultative bodies are forums where political
positions of different parties can be, and often are, articulated,
the spirit of dialogue is not
always present. Therefore, the
challenge is to mould them in a
way that they become mechanisms
for genuine co-operation.
Lastly, even though mechanisms
of co-operation and
consultation have been put in
place, the centre remains powerful
politically, and in extreme
cases it can invoke the extraordina
r y me a sure known a s
President’s Rule, which allows
the central government to
assume all the powers of a state
government when that government
is deemed to not be
carrying out its functions in
a c c o r d a n c e w i t h t h e
From 1950 to 1967, President’s
Rule was imposed on 10 occasions.
From 1967 to 1983, when
the Congress Party was no longer
the dominant force, this provision
was invoked 81 times. In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled
that such proclamations of emergency are not immune to judicial
review. Since then, President’s Rule has only been imposed
around 20 times and the political barriers to this measure have
been raised. On balance, despite many institutions for co-operation
and providing independence for the states, the centre
remains a powerful influence, further strengthened by its control
of important fiscal transfers from the centre to the states for
centre-sponsored schemes.
While there are certainly challenges confronting the federal
polity, it cannot be denied that many contentious issues have
been resolved successfully through the existing institutional
arrangements. There is added reason for optimism. The central
government has recently acknowledged the need to make the
Inter-State Council a more effective mechanism for discussion
on crucial economic and social concerns. In this era of coalition
politics, it is to be expected that there will be more
validations of this kind, helping India achieve a genuinely cooperative
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
AP Photo /Mustafa Qurais hi
s the Indian constitutional structure shows,
it is possible to respect cultural diversity without
damaging the nation-state. In multicultural, multiethnic
and plural societies, such as India and
many others, social justice, economic progress and
political democracy can be achieved only
through accommodation of diverse interests and identities. The
system of law and justice derives its legitimacy from not allowing
the need of any one group to overshadow or eliminate the
needs of others. Thus, in India, pluralism melds cultures with
the spirit of liberal democracy.
A country the size of a continent, with an
area of 3.28 million square km and a population
of over one billion, India is the world’s
most plural society: 22 national languages
and some 2000 dialects; a dozen ethnic and
seven religious groups fragmented into a
large number of sects, castes and sub-castes;
and some 60 socio-cultural sub-regions
spread over seven natural geographic regions.
A viable and successful system of government must recognize
these identities and respect and accommodate them. The
Constitution of India has done just that and has become the
best guarantee for a viable and vibrant nation.
Ultimately, it is not just a question of majority/minority in a
plural society; it is a question of social and distributive justice in
a liberal democracy. If democracy is not receptive to various
identities in a plural society, then it remains only a majoritarian
democracy that underprivileges minorities. Since majoritarian
procedures and institutions could disadvantage minorities, the
Indian Constitution has ensured special provisions for the protection
of minority rights as well as balancing group rights with
individual rights.
Territory and ethnicity
The framers of the Constitution were deeply conscious that
India is a plural society, but they were also concerned about the
need for unity and consolidation. In the aftermath of the 1947
partition of India, creating Pakistan and India, such concerns
were natural. It was in that context that a particular type of federal
governance was visualized, which evolved over time into
multi-layered federalism as the way to fulfill aspirations of the
many cultural groups. The socio-economic diversity of the
country made bargaining within Indian
federalism important. Once the decisionmaking
processes were decentralized, the
result was consensual democracy.
The framers of India’s Constitution had
intended the very size and heterogeneity of
the original large states to discourage the
emergence of parochial identities. However,
they left the door open to a reorganization of
states along linguistic lines, which, over time, has produced 28
states and six union territories. Many countries have had difficulty
in maintaining national identity in the face of demands for
autonomy, even secession. Heterogeneous India’s success in
remaining intact is surely rooted in reorganization: the adjustment
of state boundaries and creation of new states – both of
which are the prerogative of the central government. In the last
decades, as India has become less centralized, the politics of
states’ reorganization have changed as well. States no longer
feel they are overshadowed by the central government, nor is
there a feeling of systemic discrimination against the states.
[please turn to page 23]
India’s extreme
makes pluralism
Accommodation of cultures in tune with India’s
spirit of liberal democracy
Prof. Akhtar Majeed is director of the Centre for Federal Studies at
Hamdard University in New Delhi, India.
An “untouchable” becomes Chief Minister of the
northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati
Kumari, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, a
party of Dalits or “untouchables,” took power in
the state after her party’s victory in May.
REUTERS/Vijay Mat hur
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
By Isa wa Elaig wu
iversity is often seen as detrimental to nationbuilding.
Yet diversity can also lead to much greater
accommodation in a multinational state. In Nigeria,
federalism has been adopted as a mechanism for
accommodating diversity and managing potential
An extraordinarily heterogeneous society, Nigeria has a
population of about 140 million according to the 2006 census,
more than 400 linguistic groups and some
300 ethnic groups. Under British colonial
rule from 1914 to 1960, Nigeria used English
as the single common language. The most
important aspects of diversity in Nigeria are
language, ethnic identity, religion, majority/
minority cleavages and regionalism or
It is not uncommon to hear 10 different languages within a
radius of 20 kilometres, as you can in Plateau State. Language is
a key indicator of ethnic group. Often, ethnic identity coincides
with residential territory. At times, administrative boundaries
overlap with regional boundaries, within which there is a dominant
ethnic group, such as the Hausa/Fulani in the North, the
Yorubas in the West and the Ibos in the Eastern region. However,
in each region, there are also numerous minority groups, with
their own specific identities.
There are three basic religions in Nigeria – African traditional
religion, Christianity and Islam. While Islam was introduced in
Nigeria by Arabs along their northern trading routes,
Christianity came with European missionaries from the South.
Little contact under British rule
While diversity in Nigeria has been a source
of administrative concern, the nature of colonial
administration, which regionalized
Nigeria in 1939, meant that Nigerian groups
coexisted but had little contact with one
another. The 1946 Richards Constitution
brought Nigerian leaders together in the
Legislative Council (1947) for the first time.
Yet, by 1951, as the British colonial umbrella was gradually folding,
nationalists began to compete to inherit political power
from the British, withdrawing to their familiar ethnic and ethnoregional
bases to organize for the struggle. Thus, between 1951
and 1959, major ethnic groups in many regions were mobilizing
against other regions. Finally, suspicion and fear among
Nigeria’s groups led to the adoption of federalism in 1954 in
order to manage the conflict. Still, the colonial authority found
it necessary to set up the Willink Commission to investigate the
fears of minority ethnic groups in the regions, and opted to allay
them by including a human rights clause in the Independence
Constitution of 1960.
Nigeria’s federal framework
dampens ethnic conflicts
ni g eria
Diversity has also spawned
clan-based militias
Isawa Elaigwu is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the
University of Jos, Nigeria. He was director general and chief executive
of the National Council on Intergovernmental Relations, Abuja,
Nigeria. He is currently president of the Institute of Governance and
Social Research, Jos, and is the author of The Politics of Federalism in
Nigeria and Federalism: The Nigerian Experience.
Former militia leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari attempted
to run for governor of Rivers state while in prison on a
charge of treason. On June 14, 2007, he was released by
Nigeria’s new president, Umaru Yar’Adua, who is seeking
to bring peace to the Niger Delta region.
REUTERS/Austin Ekeinde
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
ticular when Zamfara state extended Sharia law to include
criminal matters in 2000. Twelve northern states quickly followed
in adopting Sharia. The violence resulting from the
introduction of the Sharia in Kaduna State triggered reciprocal
killings in the southeastern part of Nigeria. The Sharia fire did
not spill over to other states because of Nigeria’s federal structure
and the autonomy of component units.
Struggle over resources
Another source of conflict is resource distribution. Most of the
proceeds from petroleum and gas, upon which Nigeria
depends, come from a predominately minority area, the Niger
Delta, which includes Delta, Edo, Akwa Ibom, Cross River,
Rivers and Bayelsa States. Feeling cheated and neglected over
the years, these states accused the central government of using
their resources to develop other areas and threatened to take
control of them. They had walked out of the National Political
Reform Conference in 2005 because the conference had
rejected a sharing formula of 25 per cent of oil revenues by derivation.
The federal government has tried to deal with the
problem of neglect by establishing the Niger-Delta
Development Commission, devoted to the development of the
area. However, former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s master
plan was met with skepticism. The Yar’Adua/Jonathan administration
is currently trying to resolve the issue.
A final instance of diversity is the emergence of ethnic militias.
After May 1999, when the military dictators handed over
power to civilians, latent subnationalism exploded into violence.
The O’dua Peoples’ Congress, the Arewa Peoples’
Congress, the Ibo Peoples’ Congress, The Bakassi Boys, the
Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State Biafra,
the Egbesu and the Ijaw Youth Congress – were all subnational
militia groups that challenged the state with violence. As the
Nigeria Police Force grew less effective in maintaining law and
order, subnational militia groups grew stronger. Their goals, as
they – and certainly not others – saw them were to:
• Protect their identity, culture and values.
• Demand what they considered an appropriate share of
• Respond aggressively to actions regarded as unfair.
• Act as a vigilante group to protect lives and property.
• Defend the land of their ancestors against strangers.
In the Niger Delta, some leaders created militias as military
wings of political groups. After the 2003 elections, these politicians
lost control over their militias. Violence spread among
young people, who challenged state control. The Niger Delta
imbroglio continues. It is to be hoped that new measures by
President Yar’Adua can resolve the issue.
Federalism tries to establish legal and other forms of compromise
among diverse interests. In Nigeria, the federal
framework has enabled leaders to compartmentalize conflicts
over ethnicity and regionalism, thus reducing – though not
eliminating – conflicts. It has made it possible for Nigerians to
cope with religious conflicts and to contain aggressive subnationalism.
Diversity can enrich the process of nation-building,
and, in troubled times, provide the promise of renewed intergroup
relations, as the pendulum continues to swing between
federalism and centralism.
But various regional politicians and groups continued to be
alarmed. The South feared the tyranny of the Northern groups
who represented 54 per cent of the population. On the other
hand, the North feared the Southern tyranny of skills, as the
region was more advanced in Western education and therefore
had more jobs in the developing government and business
sectors. Such suspicions and resentments significantly affected
a number of political developments, particularly the census
exercises of 1962-1963, the federal elections of 1964, and the
Western regional elections of 1965, and ultimately led to the
military coup of 1966 and the aborted secessionist bid of the
Eastern Region – the Biafran War – between 1967 and 1970.
An unbalanced federation
As the leader of a military coup in 1966, Major-General Johnson
Aguiyi-Ironsi’s government inherited the ongoing problems of
an unbalanced federation, in which the regions were more
powerful than the centre. It therefore opted to alter the structure
of the federation, creating 12 states out of the existing four
regions in 1967. This grew to 19 states in 1976, 21 states in 1987, 30
states in 1991 and 36 states in 1996. The revised federal structure
provided a useful medium for the central government to compartmentalize
conflict areas among the old regions and to
reduce their intensity. But, as new states emerged, erstwhile
minorities became new majorities, often more vicious than the
old. Ethnicity and regionalism did not die with the creation of
states, and often standing issues crept back through other avenues,
such as recruitment into public office and resource
The issue of language often rose to the surface. In the
Second Republic, from 1979-1983, the House of Representatives
found, as had the Constituent Assembly of 1978-1979, that it
was convenient to continue to use English as the official language.
In addition, however, it approved the use of the Hausa,
Ibo, and Yoruba languages, a move that was sharply opposed
by representatives of minorities who saw it as “cultural slavery.”
This controversy subsided with the adoption of English as the
official language at federal and state levels.
Religious conflict emerges
Religion had not been a serious source of conflict until the late
1970s. At the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1976 and 1977,
and during the Constituent Assembly sessions of 1978 and 1979,
the Sharia law debate opened sectarian schisms. Suddenly,
religion took a front seat in political discourse. The attempt by
Muslims to extend Sharia beyond personal and inheritance
matters, and to establish a federal Sharia Court of Appeal, was
resisted by Christians. As a compromise, Sharia and customary
courts were to be introduced only in states that so desired.
At the federal level, the Court of Appeal was to have three
judges learned in Sharia and customary law sitting with common-
law judges. Such a compromise would have been more
difficult in a unitary system.
Yet in 1986, the news of Nigeria’s joining the Organization of
Islamic Conference (OIC ) stirred up another religious crisis,
especially between Christians and Muslims. While reassurances
were given, there was no withdrawal from OIC . Between
1980 and 2005, there were over 45 violent religious conflicts in
which lives and property were lost, conflict intensified in parforumfed.
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
our languages appear on Swiss franc bills and
the country’s name in Latin – Helvetica – appears on
its coins and postage stamps. The four languages –
German, French, Italian and Romansh – appear on
franc bills because they are the languages of the
Swiss Confederation. Helvetica alone appears on
coins and stamps as a concession to size constraints. In making
these choices, the unity of Switzerland is challenged by its
underlying diversity. The official response has been to seek
their accommodation. Governments have sometimes
attempted to encourage – and sometimes to downplay –
How effective has the Swiss approach
been? It’s not easy to preserve harmony and
encourage understanding and exchange
between different linguistic communities,
especially while maintaining and promoting
the less-used Italian and Romansh languages.
The canton of Grisons, officially
trilingual, has often been described as
“Switzerland in miniature” and offers insights
into what Swiss linguistic politics has achieved.
Switzerland is above all marked by its diversity, which has
defined its politics throughout its history and has been characterized
by efforts to overcome divisions, fragility and internal
conflict. Diversity motivated the choice of a federal system of
government in 1848 and is the reason for the existence of 26
cantons and about 2,728 municipalities in a land with just over
7 million inhabitants and 40,000 square kilometres. Switzerland
is not a nation in the traditional ethnic sense because it is not
based on a common language, religion or culture. It is what
German speakers call a Willensnation – a country based on the
desire of citizens to live together peacefully in diversity. The
challenge for political institutions has been to facilitate coexistence
of linguistic or other communities and development of a
common Swiss society.
Language and the law
According to the Federal Census of 2000, German is spoken by
72.5 per cent of Swiss citizens, largely in the north and centre of
the country, French by 21 per cent, to the west, Italian by 4.3 per
cent, in the south, and Romansh by 0.6 per cent, in the southeastern
canton of Grisons. Article 4 of the Federal Constitution
states that the national languages are German, French, Italian
and Romansh, and confirms that linguistic diversity and the
desire to live together are the political and
conceptual foundations of the nation. In particular,
Romansh is not to be considered a
relic, but rather a living language, with its
well-being, like that of German, French, and
Italian, a matter of concern and a prerequisite
for linguistic harmony. The Constitution
does, however, make a concession to practical
constraints: while Romansh speakers
must be able to communicate with the Federal administration
in their language, not all federal legislation must be translated
into Romansh.
Switzerland’s multilingualism is ensured through the individual’s
right to linguistic freedom (Article 18) and protection of
the linguistic communities’ integrity and homogeneity (Article
70). These potentially conflicting principles are implemented
through the nation’s federal structure.
According to Swiss jurisprudence and legal doctrine, the
principle of “linguistic freedom” means the right to use any official
language in communications by private parties with the
state and between themselves.
The protection of this constitutional right is, however, qualified
by the territorial principle, which permits linguistic
Swiss cantons
bear brunt
of nation’s
swit z erland
German, French, Italian,
Romansh – and now English?
Malcolm MacLaren is a research fellow at the Institute for Public
International and Comparative Constitutional Law of the University
of Zurich, Switzerland.
Four official languages grace Swiss franc notes – French, German,
Italian and Romansh. The cantons in Switzerland have a larger
multilingual task than the federal government because schools
and hospitals are located in bilingual areas of many cantons.
© istockp hoto .com /Gabriela Schaufelberger
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
• “Unofficial” languages. Switzerland is faced with two new
linguistic challenges. First, one-tenth of its population –
mainly foreign residents and temporary foreign workers –
speaks a non-official language, with the largest group
speaking Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian. Second, the onslaught
of English poses a challenge to policymakers. With English
becoming the lingua franca globally, and most Swiss more
fluent in it than in another national language, some commentators
propose adoption of English as Switzerland’s common
Governing a trilingual canton
The experience of trilingual Grisons canton illustrates how different
languages can cause cultural problems as well as
richness. The official languages of Grisons are German,
Romansh and Italian. However, little Romansh is spoken in
Grisons or elsewhere in Switzerland. Among Swiss inhabitants
of Grisons, 73.5 per cent are German-speaking, 16.9 per cent
Romansh and 8.4 per cent Italian. There are fewer than 27,000
Romansh speakers there and Romansh is used infrequently in
administration or court matters.
Article 3 of the Grisons Constitution tries to reconcile linguistic
variety with linguistic territories and to preserve
linguistic harmony in policy-making. It provides that the canton
and municipalities are to take necessary measures for
maintenance and promotion of Romansh and Italian, and to
encourage understanding and exchange between the linguistic
communities. Municipalities and communes are to
determine administrative and school languages with the
For over 25 years, the cantonal government sought to pass a
language law to implement Article 3. Citizens of Grisons finally
approved the law in June 2007 after heated debate. The new
law sets one threshold for percentage of native speakers to designate
a municipality as officially unilingual. The law sets a
lower threshold for a second language when designating a
municipality as officially bilingual. Each language must be one
of the official languages. The law also prefers speakers of
minority languages in hiring for the cantonal administration
and provides that as a rule the language of court proceedings is
to be that of the defendant. The law met with stiff opposition
from German speakers in Grisons who felt disadvantaged.
The future of the Swiss model
The Grisons language law has been greeted by some linguists
and legal experts as “a model for the whole of Europe.” Not
everyone agrees. Certainly, a state with a culturally diverse
population will only remain united if its communities consider
the state as their own. While Switzerland has managed to survive,
it has not perhaps grown together as its founders
intended. Provision for powerful, homogeneous cantons may
have reduced conflict but has not furthered integration.
The Swiss experience with diversity also suggests that the
ability of a constitution to prevent conflict and promote
understanding and exchange between linguistic communities
is limited. Switzerland remains less multilingual than plurally
unilingual. Multilingualism cannot be imposed from
outside; it must be nourished by a collective desire from
within society.
freedom to be limited to preserve the traditional makeup,
boundaries and homogeneity of linguistic territories. By ensuring
that linguistic communities have the space they require,
the territorial principle recognizes that an individual can only
realize himself or herself as a member of a linguistic
Linguistic territories are not protected for their own sake.
Rather, this determination is made at the cantonal level. While
the federal government must take certain measures on behalf
of Italian and Romansh, as well as of linguistic harmony generally,
its role is secondary to and supportive of that of the
cantons. Language, like culture and education, is a cantonal
matter. The cantons enjoy considerable discretion in designating
the languages of cantonal administration and schools, and
determining how use of language should be regulated. They
bear the main responsibility for realizing – and where necessary,
reconciling – obligations relating to linguistic rights and
Linguistic territories vs. multilingualism
Swiss policy on language has maintained the desire of citizens
to live together peacefully. However, tensions between linguistic
communities remain and minority languages continue to
be threatened:
• Federal multilingualism, cantonal unilingualism and bilingualism.
Federally, the Swiss government is quadrilingual.
Cantonally, governments operate in fewer languages. Most
cantons have only one official language. Officially bilingual
cantons are Bern (German-speaking majority, French-speaking
minority), Fribourg (French majority, German minority)
and Valais (French majority, German minority). The only officially
trilingual canton is Grisons (German majority,
Romansh and Italian minorities).
• Language linked to territory. The attempt to realize “linguistic
freedom” and the territorial principle simultaneously has
led to frequent legal disputes. Article 70 of the Constitution,
which seems to promise protection for linguistic minorities,
has been used on occasion by cantonal and municipal
authorities to require their children to attend public school in
the majority language. The Federal Supreme Court is called
upon frequently to reconcile these two constitutional principles
in areas of the country where different linguistic
communities are thoroughly mixed.
• Creating a new canton. One way Switzerland has “solved” an
internal conflict involving language is through creation of a
new canton. The officially French-speaking Jura canton was
split off from the officially German- and French-speaking
canton of Bern in 1978 after a protracted process involving
complex negotiations and popular votes at all levels. But the
status of French-speaking districts of Bern canton remains a
concern. The canton recently granted them limited autonomy,
and groups in Jura canton want Jura to annex those districts.
• Multilingual advantage. Switzerland has found it especially
difficult lately to have a productive dialogue between linguistic
and other cultural communities and to use the great
potential of its heterogeneity to its advantage. This prevailing
inability has manifested itself in stark disagreement between
French-speaking and other areas over initiatives to open
Switzerland to the wider world.
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
By Mehari Taddele Maru
ultiethnic Ethiopia has miraculously
remained intact despite a dizzying 30 years that
has seen it go from a monarchy to communism
to a transition to democracy all while having to
endure several droughts, famines and oppressive
Its strength and its capacity to endure seem to lie in
Ethiopia’s diversity.
It has more than 85 ethnic communities with different languages
or dialects. It is the second-most populous sub-Saharan
African country after Nigeria. Ethiopia has religious diversity as
well. Christianity and Islam are the largest religions, and
Judaism and a number of other religions are also found there.
To govern this nation of 78 million inhabitants, one of the
most diverse and conflict-prone in the world, the government
introduced “ethnic federalism” which was
constitutionally enshrined in 1995. Ethiopia
places a high priority on issues related to its
ethnic groups, one of the many compelling
facets to the country’s form of federalism.
From the fourth century AD to 1974,
Ethiopia was ruled as several forms of a
Christian monarchy. The last emperor, Haile
Selassie, was overthrown in 1974 by a Marxist-
Leninist military group called the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile
Mariam. His group set up a single-party communist state. This
regime was overthrown in 1991 by a coalition of largely ethnicbased
rebel movements, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRD F).
Constitution recognizes communities
The Constitution that came into effect in 1995 established a federation
made up of nine ethno-linguistically divided regional
states and two chartered federal cities – Addis Ababa and Dire
Dawa. The nine regional states are Afar, Amhara, Benis-hangul/
Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, Oromia, Somali, Tigray and the
Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region.
However, the Constitution also grants self-government to all
ethno-linguistic communities, including, if they so desire, the
right to form a regional state or even to secede and form an
independent country. The Constitution explicitly states that “all
sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and
Peoples of Ethiopia.” It defines ethno-linguistic communities as
a “Nation, Nationality or People … a group of people who have
or share a large measure of a common culture or similar customs,
mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or
related identities, a common psychological make-up, and who
inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory.”
The federal Constitution explicitly gives all ethno-linguistic
communities the right to protect and promote
their culture, language and historical
heritage through self-government. It
assumes that every community has its own
territory and confers the right to “a full measure
of self-government which includes the
right to establish institutions of government
in the territory that it inhabits….”
The diversity of the regional states may be
measured according to:
• population
• ethnic diversity (multiethnic or homogeneous)
• religious diversity (as it overlaps with other factors)
• way of life (settled or nomadic)
• urban or rural setting
Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia and Somali regional states all
are named after their dominant native inhabitants. These states
have one dominant indigenous ethnicity and language. The
other states – the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples;
Gambella; Benis-hangul/Gumuz; and Harari – are multiethnic
regional states with no single dominant ethnic community.
But the right to secession proves a
thorny issue along the borders
Mehari Taddele Maru is an Ethiopian scholar who earned his MSc
and LLB from Oxford University. He is currently a Mason Fellow at the
John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
An Ethiopian woman arrives at her synagogue in Addis Ababa at the
start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, in September.
REUTERS/Radu Sig heti
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
Front, which has renamed itself the Ogaden National
Liberation Front, are mainly quasi-ethnic and quasi-religious
movements, fused with ethnic ties to Somalia. The spillover
effects of such movements who claim homelands in Ethiopia
and neighbouring countries pose a difficult question for
Ethiopia. How do you determine whether a particular movement
is a legitimate Ethiopian ethnic group pressing for its
legal right to secede or a group of foreign intruders when both
share the same language, ethnicity and politics? Some
Ethiopians along the border also fear that religious radicalism
from Somalia may cross the border into Ethiopia. Recently,
there have been sporadic tensions and outbreaks of violence in
several parts of Ethiopia between Orthodox Christians and
Muslims, heretofore known for their generally peaceful coexistence
and mutual respect.
UN body recognizes ancient city
In July 2007, the city of Harar, a UNE SCO -designated worldheritage
site, celebrated its 1,000th anniversary. Guarded by its
medieval walls, the ancient city has been an important centre
of Islamic culture and commerce since the thirteenth century.
Home to more than 100 mosques, some of which are older than
those in Saudi Arabia, Harar is generally considered the fourth
holiest city of Islam.
Even though non-indigenous
Oromo and Amharas constitute
a majority, Harari state is mainly
designated to be territorially
administered by and for the
Harari. The power of the regional
state is, therefore, divided mainly
between the Harari and Oromo
ethno-linguistic communities.
Compared to regional states
such as Oromia, with a population
of 27.3 million, and Amhara
regional state’s 19.6 million,
Harari, with 131,000 residents,
would normally be considered
too small to enjoy the privileges
of a regional state. Nonetheless,
Harar i ’s special place i n
Ethiopian history as a centre of
Islamic faith, along with its cultural and religious diversity, has
justified this status.
Capital city draws rural folks
Ethiopia’s two largest cities are urban oases in an overwhelmingly
rural country, melting pots amid ethnically-based states
and regions. With a combined population of nearly 3.4 million,
Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa are two chartered regional citystates
of huge diversity. These cities are the exception in
Ethiopia: overall, nearly 85 per cent of Ethiopia’s population is
rural. Members of almost all of Ethiopia’s ethno-linguistic
communities live in these two cities, and for this reason, the
cities are answerable to the federal government, not to a specific
ethno-linguistic group. Although the numerical majority
in Dire Dawa is Oromo, Amharic is the official language of city
[please turn to page 21]
While the federal Constitution has conferred an unlimited
right to self-determination to ethno-cultural communities, the
regional states are also expected, as some already have, to grant
special administrative status to minority ethno-cultural communities
by creating special zones called Liyu Zones or special
districts known as Liyu Woreda.
The purpose of this federal arrangement is to promote
“unity in diversity” by guaranteeing preservation of the cultural,
linguistic and religious distinctiveness of the ethno-linguistic
communities, as well as their distinct lifestyles. Thus, in the
Ethiopian federal system, diverse identities are not merely tolerated
but are constitutionally protected, and public
expression of these diverse identities is politically promoted.
Upper house arbitrates
Another institutional expression of “unity in diversity” is the
House of Federation. The upper houses in most federations
have an equal number of representatives for each constituent
unit or else are weighted somewhat for population. The House
of Federation, however, is composed of one representative per
ethnic group plus an additional representative for each one
million population of that group.
This formulation means that, for example, the ethnically
very diverse Southern region has a larger voting block than
more populous but relatively
homogenous regions l ike
Oromia and Amhara. In all cases
the representatives are either
appointed by the state legislatures
or each state may organize
direct elections. The roles of the
House are less in the general
legislative areas and more specifical
ly in sett l ing conf l ict s
between regions, acting as final
arbitrator of the Constitution
and determining the revenuesharing
The following cities and
regions, which are home to various
groups of differing identities,
serve as good examples of both
the diversi ty and uni ty of
Religious tensions plague Somali state
The Somali regional state has three overlapping identities and
a secessionist movement. About 96 per cent of the population
of the Somali regional state is Somali and about the same proportion
is Muslim, while 85 per cent of the population is
nomadic. The nomadic way of life has a culture of bearing arms
as a birthright. All these identities are also commonly shared
with the population of Somalia, a country with a 1,600-km long
border with Ethiopia. The border areas have long served as
bases for several Ethiopian secessionist movements and as a
safe haven for armed separatist groups fighting in Ethiopia.
There are overlapping identities of ethnic groups along
Ethiopia’s borders with other countries, including Somalia.
Indeed, movements such as the Western Somalia Liberation
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
Young boys from the Hamer people, one of Ethiopia’s 85 ethnic
communities, watch a bull jumping ceremony in the Lower
Omo Valley.
istockp hoto .com /David Kerk hoff
ver the last 10 years, Italy has been in the
process of federalizing. Delays along the way have
led to a federal constitutional framework around a
centralist political culture. At the same time, the rich
regions of the North are demanding more autonomy,
while the poorer regions of the South are
worried that further federalization will widen the economic gap
between the two parts of the country.
From the time of Italian unification in 1871 until 1948, Italy
had a unitary form of government. It was only with the
Republican Constitution of 1948 that an innovative, but also feeble,
experiment with regionalization was conducted.
After the Second World War, not all Italian regions were
treated equally. From the very beginning, Italian regionalism
was characterized by its asymmetrical design, as a matter of
constitutional law and in terms of implementing the powers
that were transferred to the regions. Despite
constitutional provisions for one standard
regional design for the whole country, only
five special or autonomous regions were
established. All five were in the periphery:
three in the Alpine region in the north, with
historic minority groups, Aosta Valley,
Trentino-South Tyrol, Friuli-Venezia Giulia;
and the two main islands of Sicily and
Sardinia. There were international obligations imposed by the
peace treaty between Italy and the Allied Powers after the
Second World War and fears about a possible secession of these
peripheral areas. Each of the five regions has a special statute,
which is essentially a basic law that has full constitutional
The third way
As an innovative experiment, the regionalization of the whole
country mapped out a “third way” between a federal and a unitary
system, to avoid too great an asymmetry between these
areas and the rest of the territory. However, this two-track
regional design, set out in the Constitution of 1948, was not fully
developed until the 1970s. By 1972, the ordinary
regions were given devolved legislative
powers. Eight of these 15 ordinary regions are
in the North: Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna,
Liguria, Lombardy, Marches, Tuscany,
Veneto and Umbria. Two are considered to
be divided between North and South: Lazio
(Latium) and Abruzzo. The other five are in
the South: Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria,
Campania and Molise. Since the early 1970s, a permanent
increase in the regional powers gradually narrowed the gap
between the so-called ordinary and special regions. The path
has been neither straightforward nor coherent, influenced by
shifting political priorities and the Constitutional Court. As
there is still no constitutionally guaranteed institutional representation
of regional interests at the central level, extending
federalism essentially meant challenging national laws in the
Constitutional Court. These conflicts and Constitutional Court
rulings emphasizing co-operation and consultation led to the
gradual empowerment of the regional level and to a system that
can be described as co-operative regionalism.
A series of important reforms of the public administration
and the system of local self-government were adopted between
Italy takes the
slow boat to
ital y
Federalization is popular with the
North but resisted by the South
Francesco Palermo is director of the Institute for Studies on
Federalism and Regionalism at the European Academy of Bolzano/
Bozen and associate professor of comparative constitutional law at
the Faculty of Law of the University of Verona in Italy.
Jens Woelk is a senior researcher at the Institute for Studies on
Federalism and Regionalism at the European Academy of Bolzano/
Bozen and lecturer and researcher in comparative constitutional law
at the Faculty of Law of the University of Trento in Italy.
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
In Italy, the regions of the North start just above Rome. Differences
between North and South led to a movement for federalism that is
stronger in the North.
federations /shannon elliot
Six years after the passage of the constitutional amendments,
the reform is far from complete. Although some amendments
came into effect immediately, such as the new distribution of
legislative powers, the new lists were found to be incomplete
and to contain many overlaps, giving rise to an enormous
increase in the number of controversies. The Constitutional
Court had to face the fundamental task of redefining the competencies.
Frequently, this provided a rationale for expanding
the role of the national government through the assumption of
jurisdiction over cross-cutting issues instead of over narrow
jurisdictional matters, and the interpretation of the national
government as guardian of the national interest.
A second group of reform provisions required further
detailed legislation, especially in the field of fiscal federalism.
Unfortunately, the centre-right coalition government under
then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, elected immediately
after the approval, did not show any interest in implementing
the reform inherited from the previous government. Thus, only
two statutes of implementation were adopted, in 2003 and
2005, and the issue of financial relations is still unresolved.
In addition, Berlusconi’s government – including the
right-wing Northern League, which sought more radical results
– presented its own, more far-reaching constitutional counterreform.
This proposal affecting 53 articles of the whole
Constitution was finally adopted by the centre-right coalition’s
majority in Parliament in November 2005. However, its entry
into force was prevented when 61 per cent of voters opposed it
in a referendum in June 2006. This referendum took place just
after Berlusconi’s government lost the general elections. The
new government under Prime Minister Romano Prodi has
since assumed the initiative and is attempting to complete the
implementation of the 2001 reform.
However, even the regions were not that diligent in capitalizing
on the new opportunities for reform, and the process of
passing new basic laws has been very slow.
Flaws in the system
Further constitutional reform seems unlikely at this point. The
next steps in Italy’s federalization process likely will be the
implementation of fiscal federalism provisions and perhaps
some shifts in competencies. For example, there is wide agreement
that energy must be a national competence, not a shared
At the moment, Italy can best be described as a devolutionary
asymmetric federal system in the making. The term
devolutionary is appropriate because powers have been transferred
from the national government to the regions;
asymmetric reflects that there are two types of regions and the
implementation of federalism differs from region to region;
and “federalism in the making” specifies that even after the
reform of 2001, the term “federal” or “federalism” does not
appear in the Constitution. Federalism in Italy will come about
in a step-by-step basis, starting with the approval of the new
basic law by each region, and by each region taking full advantage
of the opportunities to move forward with the reform.
Italy’s constitutional framework certainly allows for a federal
form of governance. It is now up to the politicians to assume
their responsibilities.
the late 1980s and the late 1990s. These reforms encouraged the
more active regions to start developing their potential for selfgovernment.
Political demands for more self-government
became an absolute priority for the rich and industrialized
northern regions – demands which were also echoed by the
government in Rome. Initially, the devolution of powers was
primarily seen as a means for reducing expenditures by the
national government. Pressures by a federalist, and on occasion
secessionist, political party, the Northern League, made
federal reform a political issue requiring constitutional reform.
Steps toward federalism
In 1999 and 2001, two constitutional amendments were
approved which considerably increased the powers of the ordinary
regions. The first reform introduced the direct election of
regional presidents. It also strengthened the regions’ constitutional
autonomy, as the basic regional laws are now to be
enacted by the ordinary regions themselves in a special procedure.
The second reform of 2001 completely reshaped the
constitutional provisions concerning relations between the
national government and the regions, following decisions by
the Constitutional Court.
The reform declares all component units of the republic to
be equal – the national government, regions, provinces and
municipalities. While this sounds unusual for a federal system,
it does express the concept of functional spheres rather than
hierarchical levels of government. The two-track asymmetry –
involving ordinary and autonomous regions – is confirmed,
but further differentiation is now possible upon the request of
single ordinary regions. Most importantly, the reform drastically
changes the distribution of legislative and administrative
powers between the national government and the regions.
The Constitution now lists all legislative powers of the
national government as well as the fields of concurrent legislation
in Article 117. Now, the residual powers lie with the regions.
Administrative powers are no longer connected with legislative
ones, but rather are distributed in a flexible manner under
Article 118. The new provision for fiscal federalism allows for
partial financial autonomy of subnational entities in Article 119.
As well, all regions must establish a consultative body for the
representation of local authorities within their territories.
Until the early 1990s there was an unwritten pact between
North and South allowing Italy to devalue the Lira as a means
of maintaining its competitive footing with other European
countries. The economically depressed and dependent South,
for its part, used public expenditure as a means of stimulating
consumption. Then there were pressures to reduce the public
debt and overall public expenditure in order for Italy to enter
the European Monetary Union. The collapse of the North-
South pact undermined the equilibrium between northern
and southern regions on regional expenditure and tax policy.
Corruption scandals in the early 1990s led to the demise of the
old order with the dissolution of the Christian Democratic
Party and the Socialist Party. This collapse of the old political
order helped to increase the pace of these changes and a budgetary
crisis made the introduction of a number of vital
structural reforms even more urgent.
Slow implementation
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
n Spain, the contest between the central
government and the country’s 17 regional governments
can become volatile. The debate reached a fever pitch
in mid-2007 with regard to Basque demands for greater
autonomy, when opposition leader Mariano Rajoy of
the Popular Party accused Prime Minister José Luis
Rodríguez Zapatero of having negotiated with Basque ETA terrorists
“behind the backs of the Spanish people and playing
with the structure of the state as if it was a Meccano set.” Yet
according to popular opinion polls in August 2007, Zapatero’s
popularity has actually gone up since the ETA cancelled the
cease-fire on June 6.
No country has moved toward an intergovernmental system
as rapidly as Spain in recent decades. Shortly after the death of
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, democracy was
restored and the political system became federal in virtually all
but name, bringing autonomy to regional and local governments,
with powers divided between the central authority and
17 regional governments, called “autonomous communities” in
Spain. The division of jurisdiction has evolved through framework
laws, Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal and day-to-day
intergovernmental relations.
Ambitious subnational leaders have
mainly sought further decentralization and
devolution of powers to autonomous community
and local levels. Besides its 17
autonomous communities, in 2005 Spain
had 50 super-municipal provinces (seven
merged with autonomous communities), 81
county-level entities, 8,107 cities or municipal
corporations, 909 consortia (vertical partnerships between
municipalities, provinces, autonomous communities and the
state), 988 intermunicipal services and about 3,700 sub-municipal
units and government corporations. Many joint bodies
made up of representatives from the central government and
autonomous community bodies have evolved through transfer
of powers and concurrent programming. Spain’s entry into the
European Union in 1986 has affected policy in such areas as
land use, solid waste disposal, coastal zone management,
employment and immigration.
How governments interact
Spanish intergovernmental relations, or IGR , take place at three
• Macro IGR includes political interactions between regional
and national leaders, as well as major issues concerning territorial
division or concurrence of powers.
• Meso IGR refers to less visible but important routines of official-
to-official contact, the negotiation of grants and contracts,
establishing governmental partnerships and so on.
• Micro IGR is the hidden-from-public-view operational level at
which projects are negotiated, regulations and standards are
enforced, contracts are managed, land is zoned and building
permits are issued.
Macro IGR. This form of interaction includes issues of
regional strife, usually involving identity,
powers or financing, which attract attention
outside Spain. As well, regional parties often
negotiate deals in the central parliament
when forming coalition governments.
Political conflict always draws attention, and
these struggles are significant and do define
IGR , to some extent. But broader concerns of
territorial politics come into play.
Framework laws passed by Parliament in Madrid also animate
a dynamic IGR . Most powers are not neatly
compartmentalized, but rather have an impact on two or more
Spanish regions gain power
Autonomous communities and
municipalities take on more
Robert Agranoff is Professor Emeritus in the School of Public and
Environmental Affairs, Indiana University-Bloomington and Senior
Professor, Instituto Universitario Ortega y Gasset, Madrid. He is
completing a book on Spanish intergovernmental relations.
Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (r.) helps
José Montilla campaign for president of the region of Catalonia in
October 2006. Montilla was elected.
REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
have the population and revenue base to offer the full array of
such required services as water and waste-water handling,
refuse collection, access roads and sanitation. They have three
choices if they do not directly deliver each service: allow the
provincial government to provide the service, form a special
district with nearby municipalities to deliver the services or
arrange a service contract with another municipal government
or a private vendor. Each of these types of arrangement is intergovernmental
in nature and all require autonomous
community approval. Municipalities engage in interactions
with autonomous community education officials on such matters
as sites for new schools.
Intergovernmental dealings occur within the larger frameworks
of meso and macro IGR . This is where government
ultimately works – or doesn’t – in federal systems.
Where governments meet
Four additional mechanisms help hold together the system of
intergovernmental relations:
• Sectoral conferences, or multilateral meetings and issues
forums focused by policy area for autonomous community-
Madrid mutual exchanges and problem-solving.
• Bilateral co-operation commissions, essentially project-oriented
negotiating bodies comprised of first- and second-level
management from state and autonomous community
administrative bodies. These bodies initially negotiated the
levels. One study of about 74 non-defence, foreign
and domestic policies indicated that 17 involved
exclusive central jurisdiction and 19 exclusive autonomous
community authority, with the remaining 38
having a mixed nature. This last group contains most
core policies, including education, health, social services,
income assistance, economic and commercial
development, transportation, local government and
environmental management. The operation of the
education and health systems is shared between
Madrid and the autonomous communities. Local
government is made operational by country-wide
laws affecting elections, financing and basic organization
and services.
Meso IGR. Spain’s extensive interlocking
arrangements – with central framework laws complemented
by further legislation and regulation in
the communities – means that both orders of government
have strong interest in the implementation
process in many areas. Spain’s system of parliamentary
and cabinet government permits much of this
activity to be conducted within the executive
branches by administrators and contacts with their
counterparts are extensive. At the political level of
ministers and heads of government, Spain has less
contact than in such parliamentary federations as
Australia, Canada and India. However, a Council of
Autonomous Community Presidents was recently
formed and it has biannual meetings with the prime
minister; these focus on broad policy design, leaving
other issues primarily to bilateral contacts.
Policy design issues are also important in generating
IGR at the meso level. For example, the rules of
urban planning and zoning are only broadly regulated
by Madrid. Each autonomous community has its own
laws dealing with urban development, permits, construction
and regulations. Each municipality is required to file and
update a 10-year plan for development, approved by the autonomous
community, including exceptions that are allowed. The
same planning and operational processes are applicable to
autonomous community-local affairs in terms of providing
infrastructure, social services, income maintenance, health
services and education. In all these areas, middle-level intergovernmental
i s sues have largely shi f ted f rom
Madrid-autonomous community to autonomous communitylocal
As a result, more of the “action” in a number of these areas
focuses on the autonomous community capitals. Mayors and
their councillors negotiate with regional agencies over matters
such as financing and policy interpretation, review and
approval. Similarly, the main public interest organization for
governmental units, the Spanish Federation of Municipalities
and Provinces, relies more on lobbying by its autonomous
community-level affiliates, along with the autonomous-community-
level advocacy of its non-affiliated counterpart
associations in the Basque Country and in Catalonia.
Micro IGR. This level, not seen by the public, includes the
negotiating of projects, enforcing of standards and management
of contracts. Many small Spanish municipalities do not
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
A representative of Batasuna, the illegal Basque independence party, speaks at
a news conference in San Sebastian in September.
REUTERS/Vincent West
ethiopia [from page 16]
administration. Moreover, even if the majority residents of
Addis Ababa are the Amhara, Addis Ababa is the capital, not
only of Ethiopia, but also of Oromia regional state.
Nomads blur demography
The effect of diversity within one region in Ethiopia can be seen
in Gambella regional state, located in southwestern Ethiopia
bordering Sudan. An ethnically heterogeneous regional state
without a dominant ethnic community, Gambella is host to
about 253,000 people from the Anywaas, Nuer, Mezengir, Opio
and Komo, plus settlers from Tigray, Amhara, Oromia and
Southern Regional State. The Nuers constitute the largest
group, 39.7 per cent, while the Anywaa make up 27.4 per cent of
the total population.
Gambella has both settled and nomadic populations, so it is
influenced by the seasonal migration of the nomadic Nuers,
which has an effect on demographic and other aspects, such as
power sharing and conflict over resources. As a regional state
with a porous international border with Sudan, Gambella has
inhabitants in areas where ethnic groups are divided across a
border. There was fighting between different ethnic groups
there in 2003 and 2004, and the situation is still volatile to this
The ethnically-based power-allocation system set by the
federal Constitution has affected the relationship among the
ethno-cultural communities and led to violent conflicts at the
local level as different groups vie for what they see as their
rightful share of power and control over resources. Lessons will
surely be drawn from this unintended result.
Pragmatists support ethnic federalism
Unfortunately, Ethiopia does not benefit from a broad-based
consensus among the political class about the role and brand
of federalism that is right for the country. The political reaction
to the ethno-linguistic federalist arrangement in Ethiopia can
be summarized into three views. First are those who support
ethno-linguistic federalism as a matter of the ethno-linguistic
communities’ human right to self-determination, up to and
including secession. They support federalism even at the cost
of unity. Second are those who see ethno-linguistic federalism
as regrettable but the only way to prevent disintegration. This is
a calculated version of unity: inherently they are opposed to
secession but they support ethno-linguistic federalism as a
necessary means to unity, not for its own inherent merit.
A third view is held by those who are totally opposed to
ethno-linguistic federalism; they want to do away with it and
replace it with either another form of federalism or a unitary
system. It is this author’s position that if this view was to be
implemented it could turn the country into bloody civil war.
Moreover, it could lead ultimately to the disintegration of the
country – the very outcome the holders of this view abhor. In
other words, this position is blind to the essential Ethiopian
reality – which is that only a system that politically and legally
guarantees and explicitly celebrates Ethiopia’s diversity can
achieve durable peace and unity. Ethiopia has the constitutional
framework to accommodate diversity. The task now is to
apply that framework fairly throughout all of the country.
transfer of services “downward” and later dealt with the latest
power transfers in health and education for some regions.
• Joint plans and programs between Madrid and autonomous
community governments, especially in areas of joint or overlapping
competencies, including those related to EU
• Most numerous are bilateral and multilateral collaboration
agreements: contracts linking two or more governments.
More than 5,000 collaboration agreements have been signed
by Madrid and regional governments, as well as countless
others between provincial and municipal governments, and
special units of government.
The building of Spain’s “State of Autonomous Regions”
(Estado de las Autonómias) has depended heavily on these four
types of agreements and commissions.
Fiscal links are also fundamental in a system that is vertically
unbalanced. The latest studies reveal that “own source
taxes” – taxes imposed locally – of autonomous communities
in 2005 amounted to only 0.9 per cent of all revenues. The
autonomous communities receive 50.3 per cent of their revenues
as a fixed share of various taxes levied by the central
government on their behalf. They receive another 46 per cent
in the form of various transfer payments from the central budget
(apart from the special fiscal regime for the Basque and
Navarre autonomous communities).
Municipalities fare somewhat better, inasmuch as direct
and indirect taxes, charges and fees, and other revenue sources
in 2002 amounted to about 65 per cent of local revenues.
Another 13 per cent comes from state transfers, and the remainder
from provincial and autonomous community transfers.
Only a portion of these are unconditional, and the others are
dependent on completion of specific projects.
Forces that drive intergovernmental relations
Several important factors appear to animate IGR dynamics:
• Constitutional and institutional frameworks of the state, particularly
guarantees of autonomy and a share of state revenues,
assure that the levels interact.
• Framework laws in many core policy areas, plus the basic
structure of autonomous community and local governments,
lock in interdependence among levels.
• Europeanization means areas such as employment, immigration,
urban waste, landfills, public procurement, employees’
work time and environmental impact involve a fourth tier of
• Electoral competition, coalition governments and the rotation
of political parties in office have strengthened
autonomous communities and, to some extent, local governments,
and insulated them from top-down control, creating a
“politics of place,” unit by unit of government.
• Spanish political culture feeds on the importance of place and
individualism leading to the tradition of multiple unilateral
contacts to supplement or complement any multilateral
• Following subnational traditions of deep administrative
involvement in intergovernmental relations, administrative
and executive federalism are the prevailing interactive modes.
These reinforce the federalizing nature of Spanish intergovernmental
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
independence, demands for autonomy were viewed increasingly
as divisive and secessionist. Today, parties that made
such demands hold important levers of power in the present
coalition government.
A changed federal system
India has moved a long way from co-operative federalism,
where states and the central government jointly plan and carry
out programs, to competitive federalism – where individual
states compete in terms of services offered, including lower tax
bases. The country still has a strong central government, but it
does not have the same clout as it once wielded in the days
when Congress was the dominant party .
In today’s multi-party coalition, the central government
often has to cajole and negotiate with the states where it would
once have bullied its way through. As well, there have been
occasions when a state government has taken on the central
government and defied its will. The arrest of two central ministers
by the Tamil Nadu government in 2001 illustrates the
extreme end of the new transformation. On June 29 and June
30, 2001, Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalitha got her longtime
rival and former chief minister M. Karunanidhi arrested
along with two central ministers, Murasali Maran and T. R.
Balu. It was an act of political vendetta. A nationwide outcry
got them released on July 2.
As Susanne Hoeber Rudolf and Lloyd Rudolf write, “the
states are making themselves heard and felt politically and
economically more than they ever
have.” India is moving from administrative
federalism toward multi-level
political federalism. Through the 73rd
and 74th constitutional amendments, a
third tier of governance has been created.
These 1993 amendments to the
Indian Constitution provided the
framework for introducing a third tier
of elected councils in rural and urban
areas. They also provided for reserving
at least one-third of elected seats in
councils for women. Today, many prev
ious l y e x c luded g roups and
communities are included. But the
biggest impact of the 73rd and 74th
amendments is on local governance,
which moved beyond the exclusive control of central and state
Economic reforms have given a new lease on life to states,
and there has been a gradual shift of power away from the central
government. With the end of one-party rule and the advent
of coalition governments, India is moving toward a polity that
permits the emergence of strong states with a strong centre,
accompanied by increasingly assertive local governments.
With 22 official languages, a population of 1.1 billion, more
than five major religions and a geography ranging from mountain
ranges to rain forests to flatlands, it is hard to imagine India
as anything but a federal country. Had the Indian Constitution
been shorn of its federal provisions, India probably would have
had to adopt federalism simply to survive. In the past 60 years,
federalism has changed the grammar of Indian politics.
india [from page 7]
the Centre.” However, with the weakening of the Congress system
and the rise of regional parties, Indian political leaders
realized that the federal system was the bedrock of India’s democratic
One-party dominance had its share of unhealthy influence
on the federal body politic. Such was the obsession with strong
federal government that regional movements and identity
aspirations became a sort of anathema to the Indian state. Yet,
the States Reorganization Act of 1956 paved the way for the creation
of linguistic states, which stymied many demands for
autonomy. While southern India burned over the perceived
imposition of the Hindi language in the 1960s, there were ethnic
stirrings in the northeast and subnational uprisings. Some
movements bordered on secessionism, while the ethnic
upsurge was primarily the result of an accrued sense of neglect
and alienation. The 1980s saw three autonomy movements, in
Punjab, Assam and Kashmir.
Leaders in the Congress Party warned that having strong
states would entail a weak central government, and vice-versa.
If the country was weak and drifting in the late 1970s and 1980s,
they argued, it was the result of regional demands for autonomy.
Such an argument could be considered misleading as it
sidestepped the central issue of distribution of powers.
The end of one-party rule
The transformation of India from a dominant-
party to a multi-party system has
strengthened federalism. Although the
Congress Party remains a major player,
India operates with a multi-party system
that includes the Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP) and many state-based parties.
Since 1996, regional parties have
become important constituents of each
federal coalition. Gone are the days of
one-party rule.
Three combinations of coalition governments
have held power: the non-BJP,
non-Congress-led United Front, supported
from outside by the Congress
Party (1996-98); the BJP-led National
Democratic Alliance (1998-2004); and
the present Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (since
2004). The United Front government’s alternative model of
governance, with its devolution of greater economic and
administrative autonomy to states, set the tone for change in
the federal polity. Coalition governments have come to stay
and India has learned to live with this. With their commitment
to granting greater autonomy to states and transferring the
bulk of centrally-sponsored programs to state governments,
regional parties have successfully advanced the cause of
The Indian federal system has to go through frequent negotiations
between the centralists and seekers of autonomy, and
between federal and state governments. There have been
repeated revisions of the Constitution and frequently the failure
of talks and accords. It is through such constant churning
that India’s federal system has matured. In the early days of
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
In run-up to Indian elections, cookies are sold
with party symbols. Clockwise from top left:
Congress Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, Tinamool
Congress and Communist Party (Marxist).
REUTERS/Suc heta Das
what may be called single-identity states. On the other hand,
the large composite states such as Uttar Pradesh reflect a set of
variables: language/dialect, social composition of communities,
ethnic regions, demographic features, area contiguity,
cultural pattern, economy and economic life, historical antecedents,
political background and psychological make-up and
felt consciousness of group identity. It is in such regions that
most demands have been made for new states, as in the northeast
of the country.
A voice in local governments
In addition to ethnic groups seeking autonomy, there are also
those within the same ethnic group who are sometimes left out
of the political process or the local economy. For example, past
community development programs often could not succeed
due to planning done by bureaucrats and politicians in state
capitals with little or no input from the local communities for
whom the programs were planned. This encouraged dependence
on government resources and undermined self-help. By
a constitutional amendment, a new system of rural local bodies
called “panchayats” and local municipalities was
introduced in 1993. The system provides for a three-tier structure
at the village, intermediate and district levels. Through the
village council, the primary
source of power is now the
village. One-third of the
elected representatives in
these bodies have to be
women, who occupy nearly
one million seats on the
counci l s. Power s and
responsibilities have been
given to the elected local
bodies to plan and execute
economic development
plans. There are district
planning committees that
prepare the development
plan for the district as a
whole, integrating plans
prepared by the rural
panchayats and urban
municipalities. In this way,
the institutions under this
system seek to realize the
goals of decent ral ized
administration consistent
with decision-making by
people at the grass root level.
The importance of territory has been useful in building
upon diversity within nation-states and ensuring that cultural
and ethnic differences do not become the basis for group
inequality. Further, the different groups do not perceive one
another as either inferior or superior. Indian nationhood rests
on developing a societal ethos that facilitates the coexistence
of diverse groups within one country by power-sharing
arrangements. Endorsing pluralism as a value has made possible
the nurturing of both equity and identity in a single political
india [from page 10]
This has led to a situation where demands for states’ reorganization
are no longer treated as a political bargaining lever
against New Delhi, but as an administrative convenience.
The formation or reorganization of states in India has been
based on considerations such as geographical proximity, a
common language, similar usages and customs, comparable
socio-economic and political stages of development, common
historical traditions and experiences, a common way of living,
administrative expediency and, more than anything else, a
widely prevalent sentiment of togetherness; that is, a sense of
Setting the borders of states
The reorganization of states has served good governance by
advancing four criteria:
• administrative convenience
• economic viability
• similarity in the developmental needs of a sub-region
• cultural-linguistic affinity
If an ethnic group is not concentrated territorially, it can
then envisage economic and political gains if it obtains greater
regional autonomy, for
example the earlier demands
for a separate Telengana
state in Andhra Pradesh.
Where regional autonomy in
the form of a separate state is
not a viable strategy, or is
perceived as not immediately
possible, demands
have been made for preferential
treatment, such as
thos e in the s t at e of
Maharashtra for exclusive
benefits for the local residents.
Many demands for
constituting new states have
been based on allegedly
unfair distribution of develo
pme n t b e n e f i t s i n
multi-lingual states, for
example in Assam in the
1970s and 1980s.
Just as federal India is a
composite, plural entity, so
have many states become
cohesive with a plural basis
rather than a single identity. The states are often cohesive political
and administrative units, even though they are based not
on one identity, but on a synthesis of different identities. There
are some states that do claim a distinctive cultural identity;
these states are ecologically distinctive, like Uttrakhand, where
environmental activists in Himalayan communities acted 30
years ago to prevent further degradation of forests. There are
also states that claim to be ethnically distinctive, like Tamil
Nadu, Karnataka or Kerala. In another group, regional identities
have been subsumed under the dominant language, like
Maharashtra, Gujarat or West Bengal. All of these states are
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
Women line up with their voter identity cards in the eastern Indian city of
Patna. One million women were guaranteed seats on village councils or
panchayats thanks to an amendment to the Indian Constitution.
REUTERS/Kris hna Murari Kis han