Prof Ronald L Watts is an internationally acclaimed scholar who has spent his life studying federal systems all over the world. There are many important things that Nepal, particularly at this stage, could learn from his rich experience of working in the shaping of 22 out of the 25 federations around the globe. Currently, a professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University, Canada, he was also a fulltime advisor to the Canadian government on constitutional affairs.
Q: There have been debates regarding federalization of any country. Some countries that have opted for a federal system have failed while some have succeeded. What are the factors that determine failure and success?
Prof Watts: By and large, countries vary in terms of their internal diversity. Some countries are relatively homogeneous in terms of language, religion and so on. Japan, for instance, is a relatively homogeneous country. So there is less difference amongst groups within the country. But other countries, like my own Canada, either because they are very large or because there have many different groups inside them have found it desirable to give those different groups some measure of self-governance within the unity.
There are 25 federations in the world today representing 40 percent of the world’s population. At the beginning of the 21st century, this is a remarkably popular form of government.
But have all these countries successfully practiced a federal system of governance? Some federations, like the Ethiopian federation, have not sustained.
One of the things I would have to cite is that many federations have succeeded, some have failed. Therefore, it’s important to look why some federations have succeeded and why some have failed.
The first thing is that federalism can provide a democratically successful combination of unity and diversity. My evidence for that is four of the longest existing constitutional systems of the world today are federations—the United States, Switzerland, Australia, and Canada. Each of these has been under the same constitution for more than 100 years. The United States, more than 200 years.
In addition, if you look at the UN Human Development Index which tries to measure countries according to their economic prosperity, respect for rights, quality of the lives of their citizens, it ranks a total of 175 countries. Out of the top 20, eight are federations. So federation can be successful.
On the other hand, I’d argue that federalism is not a panacea. Adopting a federal system does not automatically create success. You have to create conditions. There are a great variety of federal forms or structures. So you have to have an appropriate structure of your own.
So my first point is federalism can be successful and has been, especially in many countries that are multiethnic like Switzerland, with many different languages and religions, like Canada with French and English, India with many different religious groups, Nigeria and so on. But my second point is federalism is not a panacea. In certain places it has failed. You can identify the reasons for the failures. And I think the lessons from these failures are twofold.
One is that even more important than the structure is the existence of a political culture and public attitudes that support federalism. A federal system is based on the constitutional definition of federal powers and regional unit powers. And unlike in a unitary government where the central government decides, in a federation the constitution sets out the powers.
Therefore, respect for the law is crucial. If there is no respect for the law, if people pay no attention to what the constitution says, federalism will not work. And federalism requires on the part of all groups to trust each other, to compromise, to recognize and tolerate the existence of different identities within different groups. So, I always argue that a fundamental requirement for any federal system to work is respect for the rule of law, compromise, tolerance and so on.
Secondly, I’d argue that the structure has to recognize the two basic elements of shared rule and regional self-rule, because a federation involves both elements. A federation is not just regional self-rule, which is an important part, because it lets different people to run their own affairs on matters that affect them; but equally important is the element of shared rule in areas in which they are involved. If you don’t have shared rule, they will fall apart. So, I’d emphasize that the political and constitutional structure must have an element of shared rule which brings the people together inclusively. You have genuinely shared power at the center, but you have autonomous self-rule in the units. In this regard, all the different groups can feel that they have an opportunity to run their own affairs but that they also participate in central government. Therefore, I say those two elements are crucial.
Now where it has failed it is because of lack of one of those elements—either a failure to trust each other or reach a compromise. Federalism will not work if groups are intransigent and say, “We must have our own way; we cannot compromise at all.”
Q: If you look at Nepal’s case, it is moving from a unitary to a federal system. But if we look at successful federations like Switzerland and America, they moved from being separate countries to a federal system. Don’t you think that Nepal will face problems or that it will not work in this country? Can you cite any example of a country that moved from a unitary system to a federal system?
Prof Watts: There are many countries that started as a unitary system and became a federation. For instance, my country Canada was a unitary system in 1840. It did not work because of the different groups in the country, and so in 1867, we divided what was a unitary Canada into Ontario, which is English-speaking, and Quebec, which is French-speaking. So there is a clear case of devolution to form a federation. But there are other examples as well. Spain is an example, Belgium is an example. There are many examples of unitary countries that have moved into federalism.
Q: You said there are several models of federalism practiced all over the world. What sort of model do you think will go well with heterogeneous countries like Nepal?
Prof Watts: The first thing I never emphasize is that … you cannot just look at models, say, like at a shop, and pick up one model because every country has its own unique blend of particular circumstances and conditions. But what you can do is look at other federations and see what arrangements have worked there and what arrangements have not worked.
For instance, let me give you an illustration of the sorts of things that will be able to be sorted out. Apart from designing the units themselves—taking into account not just ethnicity, but economic development and all sorts of things, the powers of the federal government and the constituencies—Malaysia has a relatively centralized governance. If you take the combined expenditure of the federal and state governments of Malaysia, the central government takes 83 percent of that expenditure and only 17 percent is performed by the states.
On the other hand, if you look at Switzerland, which is at the other extreme, the federal government only does 32 percent of the combined expenditure, 68 percent is done by the units, the cantons. Canada is similar to Switzerland in that way, and different federations all fall in between.
So one of the things you need to decide is how much power goes and in what specific areas to the federal government and what will be the specific powers that will go to the units. When you talk about the units, you need to decide what should be the number and relative size of the units. The Russian federation now has 86 units. The United States 50; Switzerland, with a population of only 7 million, smaller than Nepal, has 26 units, cantons; India has 27.
On the other hand, Belgium has only six. So, one of the things you need to decide is should you have many like in Switzerland, 26 units, or should you just have a few units? My advice is do not make them too few, because where there are too few they have usually turned out to be too difficult because they become too competitive with each other. See the federations that have collapsed—Pakistan, East and West Pakistan; Czechoslovakia, two units; Serbia Montenegro, two units. Federations of two, three or four units usually tend to be unstable. So you want to make at least six units. But you could be anywhere from 6 to 26. It gives you an enormous range.
Again, in terms of the central institutions, the institutions of shared rule, you could have a presidential or a separation of powers system, which you have in most of the Latin American federations like Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and of course the United States. Or you can have a parliamentary system combined with a federal system, such as in Canada, Australia or most of the European federations like Spain, Germany and so on.
Nearly all federations have a second chamber to represent the diversity in a country. The first chamber is based on the population, but that would leave the larger units predominant. So most federations have either equal representation or weighted representation in the second chamber. But the powers of the second chamber and the method of appointment—whether the states are represented equally and what their powers are—vary from federation to federation. Most federations have a judicial court system to umpire disputes between governments and adjudicate between them. But some federations have a supreme court, which hears appeals on all laws. Others have a specialized constitutional court—Germany, Belgium and Spain are the examples.
The constitutional amendment procedure requires that both levels of government be involved in amending the constitution. But in some federations, it is done by the legislatures, the regional units and the federal parliament. In others, it is done by a referendum.
Because of overlapping between governments, if is impossible to divide central and regional functions in watertight compartments. Then it is necessary to design instruments for cooperation between governments. And the instruments, the particular mechanisms vary from federation to federation. What I am trying to say is that there is an enormous range of questions and issues.
SOURCE: THE KATHMANDU POST. MARCH 10, 2008