Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States
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Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States

Edited by Graham K. Brown and Arnim Langer

The Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States brings together contributions from a multidisciplinary group of internationally renowned scholars on such important issues as the causes of violent conflicts and state fragility, the challenges of conflict resolution and mediation, and the obstacles to post-conflict reconstruction and durable peace-building.
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Chapter 26: Federations and managing nations

John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary


Federalism is a normative political philosophy that recommends the use of federal principles, that is, combining joint action and self-government (King 1982). ‘Federal political systems’ is a descriptive catch-all term for all political organizations that combine what Daniel Elazar called ‘shared rule and self-rule’. Federal political systems, thus broadly construed, include federations, confederations, unions, federacies, associated states, condominiums, leagues and cross-border functional authorities (Elazar 1987). Federations are very distinct federal political systems (Watts 1987, 1998). In a genuinely democratic federation there is a compound sovereign state, in which at least two governmental units, the federal and the regional, enjoy constitutionally separate competencies–although they may also have concurrent powers. Both the federal and the regional governments are empowered to deal directly with their citizens, and the relevant citizens directly elect (at least some components of) the federal and regional governments. In a federation the federal government usually cannot unilaterally alter the horizontal division of powers: constitutional change affecting competencies requires the consent of both levels of government. Therefore federation automatically implies a codified and written constitution, and normally is accompanied at the federal level by a supreme court, charged with umpiring differences between the governmental tiers, and by a bicameral legislature–in which the federal as opposed to the popular chamber may disproportionately represent the smallest regions. Elazar emphasized the ‘covenantal’ character of federations, that is, the authority of each government is derived from a constitution and convention rather than from another government.

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