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Journal of Democracy 13.2 (2002) 96-110

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A New Look at Federalism

The Import of Institutions

Nancy Bermeo


At a time when globalization is supposedly producing homogeneity, differences derived from ethnicity have become especially lethal. Ethnic violence within states is now much more common than interstate violence and also tends to be harder to stop. 1 Since 1945, ethnic violence has played a major role in half of all wars, turned more than 12 million people into refugees, and caused at least 11 million deaths. 2 Precisely because today's wars are so often between peoples rather than states, civilian casualties have risen dramatically. Fewer than half of the casualties in World War II were noncombatants, while today some three-quarters of all war casualties are civilian. 3

How can states avoid ethnic violence and best accommodate multiple ethnicities? Answering this question is probably most vital where ethnic identities have a territorial base. Geographically concentrated groups can pose challenges for national political parties, for state security forces, and even for the boundaries of the state itself.

Is adopting federalism the best way to cope with territorially based diversity? A surprising and expanding range of polities seem to be leaning in a federal direction. In the past 25 years, the number of federal states among the advanced industrial societies has grown from five (Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States) to seven (with the addition of Spain and Belgium). Italians voted to federalize last fall, and federalism is being debated in Corsica and the United Kingdom. [End Page 96]

Debates about federalism have gained increasing salience in developing countries as well. In Ethiopia, after years of civil war, regional leaders adopted a federal constitution in 1995. In the Philippines, 22 out of 24 senators called publicly for federalization in November 2000. In Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid called for federalism in 1999, opening a debate that has continued well beyond his presidency. In South Africa, pro-federal opposition parties have demanded that the ruling African National Congress enforce the federal characteristics of the constitution and accord more power to provincial governments. Serious calls for federalism are now being heard in nations as diverse as Burma, Uganda, and Afghanistan. As an increasing number of poorer countries debate the merits of federalism, other countries that have long been federal have expanded the number of subunits within their boundaries. India has created nine new states since the 1970s, three of which came into being as recently as November 2000.

The increased interest in federalism is fueled by its detractors as well as by its fans. Even a glance at the headlines suggests why the concept is so controversial. The persistence of Basque terrorism, the long and deadly struggle in Kashmir, and the tragedies emerging from the breakup of Yugoslavia seem to suggest that federal formulas for accommodation are at best ineffectual and at worst deeply damaging.

The case against federalism has been made most eloquently by those studying postcommunist regimes. According to Valerie Bunce, federal systems in communist regimes contained "virtually all the building blocks that are necessary for the rise of nationalist movements and the formation of states." 4 These building blocks included the recognition of a common language, the creation of a nationally defined intelligentsia, the establishment of a stable core of institutions led by a nativized elite, and the allocation of political and economic resources to regional leaders who could use them for divisive, nationalist purposes. She reminds us that territorially concentrated minorities in federal systems were the only minorities that challenged state boundaries in the new regimes of postcommunist Eastern Europe, and she concludes, "If new democracies inherit a national-federal structure, they tend to be more vulnerable to secessionist pressures." 5

Since the evidence for and against federalism is clearly mixed, we must weigh it as carefully as possible. Toward this end, Ugo Amoretti and I organized an international research team in 2000 to study the relative merits of federalism versus unitarism in divided societies. With the horrors of the Yugoslav breakup paramount in my mind, I expected our project to conclude...