Asymmetric federalism

Asymmetric federalism

Asymmetric federalism or asymmetrical federalism is found in a federation in which different constituent states possess different powers: one or more of the states has considerably more autonomy than the other substates, although they have the same constitutional status. The division of powers between substates is not symmetric. This is in contrast to a symmetric federation, where no distinction is made between constituent states. As a result, it is frequently proposed as a solution to the dissatisfactions that arise when one or two constituent units feel significantly different needs from the others, as the result of an ethnic, linguistic or cultural difference.

An asymmetric federation is similar to a federacy where a state where one of the substates enjoys considerably more independence than the others. The difference between an asymmetric federation and federacy is indistinct; a federacy is essentially an extreme case of an asymmetric federation, either due to large differences in the level of autonomy, or the rigidity of the constitutional arrangements. An asymmetric federation however has to have a federal constitution and all states in federation have the same formal status ("state"), while in a federacy independent substate has a different status ("autonomous region").


Asymmetrical federalism can be divided into two types of agreements or arrangements. The first type resolves differences in legislative powers, representation in central institutions, and rights and obligations that are set in the constitution. This type of asymmetry can be called "de jure" asymmetry (Brown 2). The second type reflects agreements which come out of national policy, opting out, and (depending on one’s definition of the term) bilateral and "ad hoc" deals with specific provinces, none of which are entrenched in the constitution. This type of asymmetry is known as "de facto" asymmetry. The Canadian federation uses a combination of these, which make up its asymmetrical character.

National examples


The Russian Federation consists of 86 federal subjects, all equal in federal matters but enjoying six more or less different levels of autonomy.

United States

As far as the fifty proper states are concerned, the United States is a symmetric federation, where every state has the same powers. However, the U.S. has a number of insular areas directly under the control of the U. S. federal government, with various degrees of autonomy. The District of Columbia is not an insular area, but it is also directly controlled by the federal government with limited autonomy.


The Constitution of Canada is broadly symmetric but contains certain specific sections that apply only to certain provinces. In practice, a degree of asymmetry is created as a result of the evolution of the Canadian federal experiment, individual federal-provincial agreements, and judicial interpretation. Asymmetrical federalism has been much discussed as a formula for stability in Canada, meeting the aspirations of French-speaking Québec for control over its cultural and social life without removing it from the national federation, where it coexists with nine largely English-speaking provinces which have more in common culturally and socially.


For example, tax collection is often a federal responsibility but in Québec both the federal and Québec governments retain the ability to collect both corporate, personal and sales taxes. In some other provinces, provincial governments collect only sales or corporate taxes.

A recent example of asymmetry in the Canadian federation can be found in the terms of the September 2004 federal-provincial-territorial agreement on health care and the financing thereof [] . The Government of Quebec supported the broader agreement but insisted on a separate communique [] in which it was specified, among other things, that Quebec will apply its own wait time reduction plan, in accordance with the objectives, standards and criteria established by the relevant Quebec authorities; that the Government of Quebec will report to Quebecers on progress in achieving its objectives, and will use comparable indicators, mutually agreed to with other governments; and that funding made available by the Government of Canada will be used by the Government of Quebec to implement its own plan for renewing Quebec's health system.

For example, Québec operates its own pension plan, while the other nine provinces are covered by the federal/provincial Canada Pension Plan. Québec has extensive authority over employment and immigration issues within its borders, matters that are handled by the federal government in all the other provinces.

Such an arrangement is not widely understood in the English-speaking provinces, where there is fear that Québec is enjoying favouritism in the federal system. It does, however, provide a useful lever for those who want to decentralize the structure as a whole, transferring more powers from the centre to the provinces overall, a trend that has dominated Canadian politics for the past decade.

Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq

The relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and other states of the Iraq federation can be characterized as asymmetric federalism. The political and cultural distinctiveness of Iraqi Kurdistan is lawfully recognized in Article 5 of the Iraqi Constitution. Iraqi Kurdistan is the sole federative region in Iraq, which enjoyed its separative political entity as "de facto" state from 1991 to 2003, and voluntarily rejoined a federal democratic Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is the sole region in Iraq that enjoys security and political and economic development as of 2007.Fact|date=June 2007

Application in other countries

Asymmetrical federalism is also seen in such federal systems as Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland, where two or more languages are official and well established. It is strikingly absent in the United States, where the Constitution and long practice make the states, no matter how different in size or culture, precisely equal in standing and powers.

There is a parallel debate in the development of regional institutions, such as the European Union, over whether all member states should be treated identically. At present, various countries have opt-outs from specific aspects of EU law. Some see this as a model for the future development of the EU, as a way of respecting different national traditions, whilst others object to a "Europe à géométrie variable", arguing that it is inconsistent with the original ideals of European integration.

Asymmetrical federalism has been suggested as an important part of any solution for the conflict in Sri Lanka, where tension between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils has led to periods of civil war separated by periods of general mistrust.

Unitary states

Although they are not properly federations, many unitary states with devolved self-governing regions have a structure of government that resembles that found in an asymmetric federation.

*In the United Kingdom England has no self-government and is ruled directly by the British Parliament but Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have varying degrees of autonomy. However, it has been argued that asymmetrical devolution of powers (most notably to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly) was inherently unfair, citing the so-called West Lothian question.

* In Spain, which is either called an "imperfect federation" [Moreno according to Lijphart, A. "Patterns of Democracy" (1999) Yale, p.191] or a "federation in all but its name" [Elazar, D.J. "Federal Systems of the World: A Handbook of Federal, Confederal and Autonomy Arrangements" (1991) Essex, p.228 ] , the central government has granted different levels of autonomy to its substates, considerably more to autonomous communities Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia and considerably less to the others, out of respect for nationalist sentiment and rights these regions have enjoyed historically.


*Stepan, Alfred "Federalism and Democracy: Beyond the U.S. Model" in the "Journal of Democracy" 10:4 October 1999 can be accessed [ here]
*Brown, Douglas. “Who’s Afraid of Asymmetrical Federalism? A Summary Discussion.” 2005 Special Series on Asymmetric Federalism. Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, Queens University. 2005

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Federalism — Political federalism is a political philosophy in which a group of members are bound together (Latin: foedus , covenant) with a governing representative head. The term federalism is also used to describe a system of the government in which… …   Wikipedia

  • Dual federalism — Dual federalism, a legal theory which has prevailed in the United States since 1787, is the belief that the United States consists of two separate and co sovereign branches of government. This form of government works on the principle that the… …   Wikipedia

  • Symmetric federalism — is found in a federation in which the constituent states possess equal powers. This is in contrast to an asymmetric federation, where a distinction is made between constituent states.United StatesAs far as the fifty proper states are concerned,… …   Wikipedia

  • Federation — This article is about federal states. For other uses, see Federation (disambiguation). A map displaying current official federations …   Wikipedia

  • Confederation — This article is about the form of government. For the formation of the Canadian government, see Canadian Confederation. Part of the Politics series Basic forms of government …   Wikipedia

  • Separatism — refers to the advocacy of a state of cultural, ethnic, tribal, religious, racial or gender separation from the larger group, often with demands for greater political autonomy and even for full political secession and the formation of a new state …   Wikipedia

  • Austria — Austrian, adj., n. /aw stree euh/, n. a republic in central Europe. 8,054,078; 32,381 sq. mi. (83,865 sq. km). Cap.: Vienna. German, Österreich. * * * Austria Introduction Austria Background: Once the center of power for the large Austro… …   Universalium

  • Federacy — A federacy is a form of government where one or several substate units enjoy considerably more independence than the majority of the substate units.Citation last = Stepan first = Alfred author link = Alfred Stepan title = Federalism and Democracy …   Wikipedia

  • Regulatory competition — Regulatory competition, also called competitive governance or policy competition, is a phenomenon in law, economics and politics concerning the desire of law makers to compete with one another in the kinds of law offered in order to attract… …   Wikipedia

  • Russification — (in Russian: русификация rusifikátsiya )is an adoption of the Russian language or some other Russian attribute (whether voluntarily or not) by non Russian communities. In a narrow sense, Russification is used to denote the influence of the… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”