Tuesday, June 5, 2007

"The Settings in Which Federalism Works Best"

Nancy Bermeo

Politics Department, Princeton University

[excerpts from her paper "Position Paper for the Working Group on Federalism, Conflict Prevention and Settlement"]

What are the settings in which federalism has the most positive effects?
Professors Coppieters and Schlosem suggest several areas of investigation.
All federal states have histories and thus the legacy of the past has an important role to play in shaping the preferences and expectations of both citizens and elites. The boundaries of identity groups are defined by the myths (or realities) of a shared history.The nature of a group’s past interactions with dominant or neighboring “others” is a key determinant of its present positions. Identity group leaders shape behaviors in federal systems based on calculations about group interest, but these calculations are always “alloyed with enmity” and “off-set by apprehension.” (Horowitz 1981:167) The legacies of the past shape the intensity of enmity and the depth of apprehension of all peoples within a federation. Pasts marked by mass civil and physical oppression leave longlasting legacies that hamper the positive effects of federalism. The targeting of individual militants can certainly hamper conflict resolution, but it is not likely to be as consequential as the targeting of mass groups. (Lichbach 1987, 266-97) Persecuting leaders creates martyrs but persecuting whole peoples creates movements. The most intractable problems of accommodation in federalist states today are those with legacies of recent violence.
Violent pasts do not always perpetuate violence in new federal arrangements. A process of political learning may take place in which elites and citizens come to realize the traumatic implications of their past intransigence and become more cooperative as a result. (Bermeo 1992:274) In post-Franco Spain, the political elites who constructed the new federal democracy were explicit in their determination to avoid the behaviors that had led to civil war (Aguilar 2002:25) The timing and nature of the federal arrangements that evolved in Spain were testimony to the emerging elite’s desire to avoid allowing regional divisions to hamper a peaceful transition to democracy. (Beramendi and Maiz:2004)
Whether political learning takes place and whether enmity and apprehension continue have much to do with the way that politicians, and intellectuals frame the history of sub-national groups. Whether the trauma of civil war produces a spiral of factionalism or a powerful constituency for unity depends on how intellectuals and opinion leaders portray the past. (Coppieters and Huyseunne 2002) The “trauma of the Biafran civil war” contributed to “the strong attachment of many intellectuals in Nigeria to the idea of national unity.” (Coppieters and Huyseunne 2002: 279) Though Nigeria has been racked with violence throughout its federal history, the fact that the country has held together is attributable in part to intellectuals’ interpretation of the war and its implications for elite actions today.

War-time experiences can obviously be interpreted in different ways. People do not always learn from their mistakes. If federalism divides intellectual communities after wars and provides incentives for nationalist historical interpretation, the consequences of federalism can be grim. The growing powers of the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia “stimulated the production of nationalist scholarship” (Coppieters and Huyseunne 2002: 277) which in turn, contributed to the fear and distrust leading to war. Was this inevitable? Possibly not, but scholars and policy makers must focus more energy on assessing how and when the legacies of a violent past provide a forum for positive political learning and when they do not. The origins and perpetuation of a democratic culture, (if by this is meant a culture open to compromise) will always beaffected by intellectuals and opinion leaders but just how these values are nurtured remains, to me at least, mysterious.
Economic conditions seem to shape the effects of federalism in dramatic ways. Though federalism may decrease the likelihood of ethnic conflict at a general level, atl east one quantitative study of federalism concluded that “the interaction of high inequality with ethnic heterogeneity dramatically increases the likelihood of armed conflict.” (Bakke and Wibbels 2004:17) Whether federalism is established in poor or wealthy states may be even more consequential than inequality within regimes. My work with an early MAR data set showed that the positive effects of federalism may be heavily dependent on the wealth of the regime in question. For states with a per capita GNP of $6,000 or more, federal states appeared to accommodate minorities better than unitary states on six separate measures ( related to violence, political and economic discrimination and political, economic and cultural grievances) Among the poorest states the differences between federalism and unitarism, begin to fade. In states with per capita GDP below $3,000, federal states score lower than unitary states in terms of both economic and political discrimination. Federalism thus appears to have clearly positive effects at a certain level of economic development but below that level its advantages over unitarism are less uniform.

Administrative expertise within both central and regional governments seems to be an important pre-requisite to the provision of all the public goods that federalism might bring. Indeed, a recent study of the founding of federalist systems argues that federations will not emerge unless component units have developed a certain level of administrative capacity. (Anonymous: 2005) Michael Hechter’s broadly comparative work on nationalist conflict concludes that the break-up of Yugoslavia was due less to federalism directly than to the fact that the administrative capacity of the central government disintegrated due to exogenous shocks. “If the central state implodes…it has little to offer peripheral leaders and fragmentation is the likely consequence.” (Hechter:2000:149). Federal systems depend on bargains. If the central government lacks the expertise and resources to deliver on its half of the arrangement, new arrangements will appear more attractive.
A second set of administrative factors worth mentioning has to do with the nature of the administrative boundaries at the heart of the federalist system. Should the boundaries of the units of territorial governance coincide with specific identity groups in an ethno-federal arrangement or should boundaries be drawn with other criteria in mind? Hale’s study of 27 cases suggests that the administrative boundaries of the units within federal states must divide the largest identity groups, in order to avoid the creation of core ethnic regions.
The factors that may make the most difference in providing the proper context for federalism to work might be institutional ones that need to be added to the list of contextual determinants offered in our workshop documents. A broad range of scholars have come to conclude that federalism works best in certain sorts of party systems. Stability is most likely in countries where regional parties exist but where decentralized, country-wide parties dominate the political system. A system in which only regionally specific parties compete is unlikely to be stable. (van Houten 2004:25) Even a mixture of country-wide and regional parties can be destabilizing if the latter dominate. A statistical study of 23 democracies in the period from 1990 to 2000 concludes that regional parties can undermine the otherwise positive effects of decentralization and federalism if these parties attract more than 10% of a country’s vote. (Brancati 2004: 28) “The probability of an increase in inter-communal conflict rises .07 points for every percentage point increase in the vote for regional parties.” (Brancati 2004:25) The systems that combine regional parties with federalism successfully are those that reduce the relative strength of regional parties through electoral law and institutional design.

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