Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Summary of the position paper for the International Federalism Conference, 2005 in Brussels.


-Rudolf Hrbek

The effect that a federal structure can have on the democratic legitimacy of a political system is at the root of the discussion about the relationship between federalism and democracy. This first of all calls for an explanation of the principle of democracy and the concept of democratic legitimacy. Democracy means that the members of a society organised into a State are citizens (as opposed to subjects), that they enjoy fundamental rights, that they can play a decisive role in political decisions, that holders of public offices and mandates are politically responsible and answerable to the citizens, that the exercise of power is shared and restricted by institutional and procedural arrangements that bring about a separation or control of powers (i.e. powers are not concentrated) and that several political parties compete for voters and members and to hold offices and mandates. Democratic legitimacy is held up by three pillars: structures and procedures that restrict power, successful fulfilment of responsibilities (service) and power of personal reputation.

As the principle underlying the structure and organisation of the State, federalism should serve to integrate heterogeneous and fragmented societies and allow the separation of powers or the control of powers. In federalism, power is split between two levels (the country as a whole and the component states) and sets out to combine diversity with unity. In practice, there are many different forms of federal states. The main forms are dual versus cooperative federalism (or even federalism characterised by political integration), asymmetric federalism, federalism with centrifugal (or even separatist) or centripetal tendencies. With the rise in decentralisation, regionalisation and federalisation tendencies, as has been the case in Europe over the past 2 to 3 decades, the goal has been to win more democratic legitimacy and greater efficiency.

When it comes to the positive democratic influence of a federal structure, it could be argued that this kind of structure offers considerable potential to foster democratic legitimacy. A federal structure offers additional possibilities for participation on the sub national level of the component states (such as, for example, the voting right, direct democratic decisions or political activity within the framework of parties and interest groups on this level). It also has additional means of controlling power (through the separation of authority between the federal government and the component states with the help of institutional and procedural arrangements and rules). It paves the way for political decisions that are strong because they are efficient (closer to the heart of the problem, faster and more flexible reaction possibilities) and it offers more forums to build up the power of personal reputation. This potential does not automatically give rise to democratic legitimacy in all its dimensions. Specific forms of federal structure can also have a negative influence on certain dimensions of democratic legitimacy. A federal structure, both in the case of cooperative federalism or political integration, are very complex, lack transparency and do not allow for a clear allocation of responsibility. Policy processes in these kinds of structures are in many ways dominated by governments and bureaucracy and marginalise parliaments and politically active citizens. The negotiations of those that participate in these processes, which aim for consensus and compromise, are time-consuming, leave urgent problems often unsolved for a long time or result in only unsatisfactory solutions. Finally all that can also facilitate the emergence of radical tendencies that threaten democracy.

Therefore, as far as its positive democratic influence is concerned, federalism is ambivalent. Attempts to reform federalism in individual states therefore aim for an increase in efficiency and democratic legitimacy. However, basically it is true that democracy and federalism are closely bound and when they are standardised and anchored as constitutional principles, they are also considered to be complementary.

Source: EPB
Img: Tele Akademie

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