Many scholars and politicians have come to accept federalism and decentralization of government authority, as it brings with it several political, economic, social, cultural and administrative advantages. While several new federal states have emerged in the past three decades, including Ethiopia and Russia, older federal states such as Canada, USA, and Switzerland have made their federal systems stronger and remained intact.
In fact, while many countries have transformed from a unitary to a federal form of government, on the contrary, no country has transformed or returned from a federal to a unitary form of government. Indeed, over 56 percent of the world’s populations live in federal countries that adopted a multi-party system.
Though federal systems across the world have similar features, i.e decentralization and the presence of two government structures, some federal systems have their own distinguishing and unique features depending on their specific contexts. Then again, as a federal system has always room for improvement, there is always a chance to learn from others’ unique features and circumstances
For example, Ethiopia’s federal system has its own unique features that others can take a lesson or two. One of the things that make the country’s federal system unique is the fact that the nations, nationalities and peoples are the sovereign holders of the ultimate power of the land.
The power of the federal government also derived from this reality. This is because; it is the diversified peoples of Ethiopia who created the federal system by their own consent. Accordingly, the federal government acts on behalf of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia through their representatives.
The common benefits the diversified peoples of Ethiopia receive from federalism include using their own language in education institutions and courts. Further, each ethnic group has the right to self-administration and to develop its own culture.
While there are several countries that adopted a federal system as mentioned above, the experiences and unique features of Switzerland and Canada are notable examples for having unique features that can be taken as a lesson for others to thoroughly look into and develop their own form of federalism.
Switzerland is a country of 7 million people. It is surrounded by Austria, France, Germany, Italy, as well as Liechtenstein, a small principality. According to Professor Dr. Thomas Fleiner’s paper, Federalism: Basic Structure and Value of Switzerland, Recent Developments In Swiss Federalism, modern Switzerland has been constituted out of 25 sovereign (6 half cantons) cantons with the first Federal Constitution of 1848. The 26th Canton (Jura) has been constituted out of secession from the Canton of Berne in the end of the seventies. 17 Cantons are German speaking, four Cantons are French speaking, one Canton is Italian speaking, three Cantons are bilingual (German – French) and one Canton has three languages (German, Romansh and Italian).
“The diverse Swiss societies were able to form their own governmental system and to constitute a state composed of different sovereign Cantons, that is, of politically very diverse political units, of different language communities and different religions. The main purpose of the Alliance (“Bund”), which later developed into a federal state, was to rule the political affairs of the Cantons and of the Alliance independently and according to their own values of democracy,” wrote Professor Fleiner.
First, the Alliance was able to unite speakers of German, French and Italian, three main Western European languages and 25 democratic corporations. Latter, it was transformed into a federal state with a Federal Constitution in 1948.
The Swiss federal system is based the constitutional autonomy of the Cantons (self-rule) and their constitution making power on the federal level (shared-rule), according to the above mentioned professor. Hence, the federal system exists through and by the will of the Cantons. “Each of the cantonal democratic communities could thus live and develop according to its own culture, history, language and religion. They kept their own perception of a cantonal nationhood and state legitimacy. In consequence, they maintained their own cantonal and even municipal citizenship. Thus, until today every Swiss has kept its three-fold citizenship: municipal, cantonal and federal.”
Switzerland’s Federal Constitution has been repeatedly amended throughout the years. On the dawn of the new Millennium, Switzerland has introduced a new Federal Constitution, which did not radically change the political system. But, it introduced new provisions that heralded a new federal policy for Switzerland. Although in theory sovereignty is not divisible, the old as well as the new constitutions claim the Cantons to be sovereign as far as their sovereignty is not limited by the Federal Constitution.
On the other hand, Canada is also one of the oldest and most successful federal states in the world both in terms of societal (cultural) as well as economic aspects. Under the federal principles, Canada has two constitutionally autonomous levels of government: the country-wide federal government and ten provincial governments. The nation’s basic division of government plays an important role in public finances and public policy, according to Federalism in Canada: Basic Framework and Operation.
The federal state of Canada was formed in 1867 following the negotiations among political leaders from the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which were British colonies at the time. Following the negotiations, Imperial Parliament adopted the British North American Acts which are a serious of acts that are core to the constitution of Canada.
According to, Richard Simeon, Federalism in Canada, A Visitor's Guide 2002, the fundamental basis for federalism in Canada was and remains the need to reconcile, balance and accommodate diversity. Which means the new federation was born in large part out of the need to reflect two different linguistic diversities, the Maritimes and the Province of Canada, particularly the sharp distinction between the French-speaking inhabitants of Lower Canada and the English-speaking inhabitants of Upper Canada and the Maritimes.
The federal government has jurisdiction over the entire country and each provincial government has jurisdiction over particular portions of the population. Both levels of government derive their authority from the written Constitution. Most sectors are under federal jurisdiction (such as foreign affairs and telecommunications) or that of the provinces, such as education and healthcare, stated according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
As it has multifaceted aspects, federalism is always a work in progress. Each country has its own unique experiences. Having discourses on such experiences open the door to look into the possible ways of improving the system. In this regard, international institutions such as Forum of Federations play a crucial role in facilitating such platforums.
BY ABIY HAILU