Asymmetric Federalism may be a solution to regional conflict

Kane’s article about Iraq’s Federalism Quandary describes the struggle over power, territory, and resources within the state, leading to the question of what type of federal structure should exist. The 2005 Iraqui Constitution describes the country as a federal state but gives a large amount of autonomy to groups such as the Kurds. Other providences begin to desire a similar amount of autonomy which risks the state partitioning into several individual bodies. The authors suggest a system of asymmetric federalism to solve the political issues that revolve around both cultural differences as well as oil.1

Ethiopia has a system of ethnic federalism in place that came to be after a fifteen-year civil war. This system has caused several problems from its beginning. It has forced people to align themselves with only one ethnicity even if they are mixed heritage and the different territories don’t have equal populations to rule over causing disputes over borders. Experts believe that these partitions due to ethnic identities have caused more harm than good and that the state’s unity may be at risk.2

How can a system of asymmetric federalism be used to solve political disputes in a multi-national state?

Federalism, the division of power between central and local governments, creates a check on the central government as well as allowing people of different regions to be better represented. In a system of symmetric federalism, the level of autonomy for each regional government is the same. On the other hand, a system of asymmetric federalism grants different levels of autonomy to each regional governing body. An asymmetric system would allow larger ethnicities to have greater self-governing abilities which are important if aspects such as their religion cause them to have specific sets of values. Also smaller regions who don’t have the ability to afford things such as a military would be protected by the central government with lower autonomy.  However, with the varying levels of autonomy, groups with lower levels of autonomy may strive to earn more leading to a segregated state.

  1.  Sean Kane, Joost R. Hiltermann, and Raad Alkadiri, “Iraq’s Federalism Quandary,” The National Interest, (March/April 2012.)
  2. Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism is being Tested” Economist (October 7, 2017)

Too big too fast?

India’s Party consists of two major parties–the INC and the BJP– as well as smaller left-leaning communist parties and regional parties tied to ethnic and religious identities. The INC dominated the political system for a long time, similar to Mexico’s PRI, and was pro-national independence had a social democracy ideology. The BJP party supports a pro-Hindu national identity as well as neo-liberal economics and in recent years had gained a majority in the legislature. The smaller parties of India can be found creating coalition governments with either the INC or BJP to gain power over the legislature.1


Unlike the United States Supreme Court which only hears around 70 cases a year, the Indian Supreme Court can hear up to 700 cases a day. Due to India’s large and growing population and the youth of their democracy which consists of many ethnic and religious divides India’s court often has difficulty in reaching a decision. Similar to the judicial branch, India’s parliament also can often be found in argument rather than agreement. The people have become fed up with the government’s inability to reach conclusions causing them to fail to provide many basic services.2


With two major parties dominating Indian politics, are the rights of minorities really being both represented and protected and do the political parties help or hurt the government’s struggle to reach agreements?


In order to represent all of  India’s many religious and ethnic identities, the government has a system of asymmetric federalism. Along with local governments that represent the regional differences of India’s population, India’s smaller political parties serve to represent these different identities. However, with two major parties which are in support of national independence and Hinduism consistently dominating parliament the smaller religions and ethnicities struggle to find their voice in politics. The INC and BJP parties need to take into recognition that their campaigns may not be representing the entirety of the population and seek to address this concern in the future.

  1. Patrick H. O’Neil, Karl Fields, Don Share, “Cases In Comparative Politics”, 6th ed. W.W. Norton & Company (2018) 475-484.
  2. “Hundreds of Cases a Day and a Flair for Drama: India’s Crusading Supreme Court” The Economist. (Sept. 27, 2018)