Decentralization and Conflict Management in Multicultural Societies

Multiculturalism has become a challenge for most countries with fragmented societies. In a global village with international order, many countries are now confronted with the task of bringing together and holding together multicultural societies. One of the classic challenges of political organizations is the decision regarding territorial or divisional power. There are three ways to organize power among national, state, and local governments: unitary, confederal, and federal. Unitary government concentrates almost all government power into a single national government; a confederal system disperses government power to regional or local governments. The federal system, also known as federalism, divides power between national and state governments. Under federalism, each level of government is independent and has its own powers and responsibilities. Often it is not clear whether a state or national government has jurisdiction on a particular matter because at times the national and state governments alternate between cooperating and competing with each other.

Under the unitary systems are those in which sovereignty, decision-making authority, and revenue raising powers are solely vested in a single central government. Sub-national units may exist in unitary systems of government, but they can be revoked by the central government. A majority of countries around the world have unitary systems of government. For example, France, Japan, and China have unitary governments, but Great Britain is an example of a unitary state that has devolved its limited powers to a series of regional assemblies, such as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, three countries that exist without being coalesced into a federation.

The advantages of a unitary system of government are clarity in the lines of accountability, coordination of control by a primarily legislature and executive, and ability to ensure equality in treatment of all parts of the country through a unitary applied form of laws. Under the federal system of government the areas, self-rule with shared rule and are characterized by a strong central government coexisting with sub-national units that enjoy their own spheres of jurisdiction and resource bases. Sovereignty shared among levels of government and formal distribution of powers are defined constitutionally. This kind of system tends to emerge in large or populous countries such as the United States, India, Canada, Brazil, Germany, and Australia.

Under the confederal systems the central government coexists alongside of sub-national units, but in this model the provincial, regional, or state governments are significantly stronger than the national authority. In this case the central government depends on the sub-central units for resources and authority, and under the confederate system of government sub-central entities participate voluntarily and can easily exit the partnership as well. The decision depends on the unanimous decision of regional units. So the central government has the purpose of limited policies, primarily defense and foreign policy as was the case of the United States under the Articles of Confederation 1781-1789, the Confederate States of America 1861-1865, the former USSR, and the European Union. Weak central authority cannot enforce national laws.

Federalism is traditionally considered to be a useful way of limiting governmental power. Therefore, it has been considered a solution to the organization of power in order to secure good governance. However, at the same time, it has also been criticized as detracting from efficiency and equality. Federalism has been used in Northern Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region to end the violent conflict with the Iraqi Central government to ensure political cooperation between the Kurds and the Arabs. Federalism has been used as a tool to end the conflict in Bosnia and some other countries as well. The success of federalism depends on how the power sharing is designed, and on whether major parties agree on the nature of the power sharing. The Philippine state with its regions’ relation to the state and to each other is a case in point.

These reforms have to be achieved through local compromise and cooperation and cannot be imposed from the outside. For federalism to work properly all parties must accept the state and its federal nature. Otherwise, federalism can change the power balance and can create new vulnerable groups, particularly if any group can permanently dominate or block the political process at any government level. Therefore, it is important to define clearly what federalism is and what it is not. To avoid misunderstanding, of importance are the legitimacy and adequacy of the prospective design of the state system rather than just the labels “federal or “quasi-federal,” “sub-state,” “quasi-federal state,” “confederal state,” or special “autonomous” system of government. Defining the concept at an early stage can limit the options. Also, sometimes it is difficult to figure out where one level of government ends and the others begin.

The design and major principles of self and shared rule must be guaranteed in the constitution, because under federalism there are two levels of government –the federal and the national levels. Federalism can be territorial federalism or ethnic federalism with the classic federalism composed of territorial entities. Boundaries of territorial entities can be drawn to create, to the extent possible, territorial entities with ethnically, culturally, religiously or linguistically homogenous populations normally called “ethnic federalism.” In the end Muslims in the Philippines would like to be self-ruled and would like to have their own state, one separate from the Philippines because the Quran requires that Muslims be ruled by Muslim rulers, not by non-Muslim rulers. In reality, most of the time federalism is one step closer to independence. For example, the Kurds in Northern Iraq will soon hold a referendum, and the majority of the Kurds will vote for independence from Iraq.

Right now the Philippines government has an arrangement with the Bangsamoro people for a special autonomy, like Indonesia has with the Aceh province and Finland has with the Aland Archipelago. It is also considered an asymmetric form of decentralization. In such special autonomy arrangements, powers are transferred to one specific self-rule unit, but the entity does not have special representatives at the central government nor its own constitution. There are many hybrid forms of governments, because many countries are not clearly unitary, federal, or confederal but rather show elements of several forms of government. The Philippine government also does not have to copy from any other country’s system of government. It should have one system that best suits the Philippines, so that its people can live with one another in peace and prosperity because each country has its own unique culture and people; consequently, what government best suits another country should not be adopted. This does not mean, however, that the government should not study other forms of government.

Right now the debate on federalism can provoke high and unrealistic expectations as well as fears. Especially representatives of ethnic minority groups tend to believe or hope that federalism will give them a much better position in the government with greater access to political power sharing, resources, and development. Yet, all parties must consider that federalism generally moves toward independence and complete control over the territory. Initially, the groups want veto powers at the central level and aim to be independent later. Federalism introduces new dominance structures and provides incentives for people to be mobilized along ethnic and religious lines. There are success stories about federalism as well as stories of failure, but studies show that in spite of its shortcomings, federalism could be a better form of government than a unitary system of government given the incentives to non-minorities to be part of the government and to gain more stability; however, federalism will not solve all the conflict, but it can provide a peaceful solution for conflict management.

There are many different forms of federal state systems of government. Every federal state shapes its own institutions according to its needs. What matters the most is whether the chosen option has the support of the people and, therefore, can be incorporated into a new social contract to bring peace and prosperity.

Dr. Aland Mizell is President of MCI and a regular contributor to The Kurdistan Tribune, and Mindanao Times. You may email the author at: